Supreme Court: Ban on Mandatory Juvenile Life Sentences Is Retroactive

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on January 25, 2016 2:58 PM

Back in 2012, the Supreme Court held that mandatory life sentences for juveniles without the possibility for parole are unconstitutional. The question at the time, and one that has been posed to state courts ever since, was whether that ruling applied to inmates already serving life sentences for juvenile convictions.

And now we know the answer. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court decided that its ruling in Miller v. Alabama is retroactive, and those that were previously sentenced to mandatory life terms as juveniles must be eligible for parole. Let's take a look at the Court's ruling.

No Discretion, No Justice

In Miller, the Court found that mandatory life without the possibility for parole violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. While such sentences were still allowed, they could not be mandatory and judges and juries must be given discretion when it comes to sentencing juveniles.

Henry Montgomery was just 17 when he killed a deputy sheriff in 1963. The jury in his case returned a verdict of "guilty without capital punishment," which, under Louisiana law, required the trial court to impose a sentence of life without parole. After such sentences were deemed illegal under Miller, Montgomery appealed his sentence, but was denied by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

If Substantive, Then Retroactive

Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy reversed that ruling, stating, "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." Miller was that kind of substantive rule, and therefore all prior mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles were violations of that rule.

That doesn't mean that Montgomery will be freed -- states can remedy these violations by extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders. It's now up to Henry Montgomery to argue that he is not the same troubled youth who committed murder, and that "children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change." But at least now he'll have the chance to make that argument.

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