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Supreme Court: Retroactivity Ends Mandatory Juvenile LWOP Sentences

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, held on January 25, 2016 that juvenile offenders can no longer be sentenced by state courts to mandatory life without parole (LWOP), even in capital cases. The Court ruled that its decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012) [PLN, June 2013, p.50], which invalidated mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences, should be applied retroactively in a challenge filed by Henry Montgomery, who received an LWOP sentence for killing a deputy sheriff in Louisiana in 1963 when he was 17 years old.

According to the majority of the Court, “‘children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,’” quoting from Miller, which cited the ruling in Roper v. Simmons, 125 S.Ct. 1183 (2005). “These differences result from children’s ‘diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.’”

The Supreme Court then explained three factors that underpinned its opinion, quoting from Roper: “First, children have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’ leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking.” Second, they “‘are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures,’ including from their family and peers; ... and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.” Finally, “a child’s character is not as ‘well-formed’ as an adult’s; his traits are ‘less fixed’ and his actions less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievable depravity.’”

In addressing the issues in Montgomery’s case related to his juvenile LWOP sentence, the Court had to wade through a procedural morass regarding the retroactive application of Miller to a state court proceeding that took place decades ago. Normally, unless a ruling is specifically announced to be retroactive, any procedural change, unless it is a “watershed” change, is not considered to be “substantive” under Teague v. Lane, 109 S.Ct. 1060 (1989) for the purposes of collateral proceedings. Although the Miller decision controlled all post-2012 juvenile criminal cases, Louisiana, as well as many other states, did not apply it retroactively to its already-decided state proceedings related to juvenile LWOP sentences. [See: PLN, May 2014, p.38].

The Supreme Court relied upon its decision in Danforth v. Minnesota, 128 S.Ct. 1029 (2008) to further expand its interpretation of what constitutes a substantial change, holding “that when a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule.” Further, the Court wrote, “Miller’s conclusion that the sentence of life without parole is disproportionate for the vast majority of juvenile offenders raises a grave risk that many are being held in violation of the Constitution.”

According to the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, approximately 2,500 prisoners nationwide are currently serving LWOP sentences as a result of offenses committed when they were juveniles.

The Supreme Court justified its retroactivity ruling by emphasizing that relief could be obtained for prisoners serving juvenile LWOP sentences without relitigating their cases, “by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them,” which “does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions. Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences.”

The Court’s decision gives new hope to criminal justice reform advocates who have long argued for relief in juvenile LWOP cases, and have maintained that more effort should be made to rehabilitate those who are already serving prison sentences and, like Montgomery, have done their best to change their behavior.

The Supreme Court took note of the latter point, stating: “Henry Montgomery has spent each day of the past 46 years knowing he was condemned to die in prison. Perhaps it can be established that, due to exceptional circumstances, this fate was a just and proportionate punishment for the crime he committed as a 17-year-old boy.... [H]owever, prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

The late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. See: Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 758 (2016).

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Related legal cases

Miller v. Alabama

Montgomery v. Louisiana

Danforth v. Minnesota

Roper v. Simmons

Teague v. Lane