On January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, ruling that its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide, must be applied retroactively.
In Miller, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that “children are not simply miniature adults.” Her statement echoed Justice Kennedy’s observation in Graham v. Florida—which banned life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses—that criminal laws that failed to account for the unique attributes of youth were flawed under current constitutional analysis. Following Miller, lower courts split on the ruling’s retroactivity, with a majority applying it retroactively but several courts declining to do so.
That debate has now been settled. In the wake of Montgomery, as many as 2,000 individuals sentenced to mandatory life without parole for homicides they committed when they were under the age of eighteen will get a second look—either through a re-sentencing hearing or parole eligibility. This includes individuals who were sentenced as far back as the 1950s in some states.
Since 2005, the Supreme Court has now issued five opinions that firmly establish that young offenders occupy a special place under the Constitution—particularly the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. From the death penalty to life without parole in non-homicide cases to mandatory life without parole in homicide cases, the Court has moved decisively to limit the application of our harshest sentencing practices to children who are prosecuted and convicted in the adult criminal justice system.
Montgomery sits firmly in that pantheon. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy forcefully underscored the restrictions the court had placed on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in Miller, limiting them to the rare and uncommon instances where the youth is “permanently incorrigible” or “irredeemably corrupt.” This is an exceptionally high bar. Adolescence is defined by its transient nature—a dynamic rather than fixed period of human development that precedes adulthood and maturation. Research teaches that most children will naturally desist from criminal offending in their early to mid-twenties. Adherence to Miller’s mandate should preclude life without parole sentences for all but a tiny fraction of this population of juvenile offenders. This is the challenge that all stakeholders in the justice system must meet going forward.
Our thanks to Marsha Levick, Deputy Director and Chief Counsel of the Juvenile Law Center (JLC) in Philadelphia, for contributing this post to The Legal Advocate. Ms. Levick, a nationally recognized expert in juvenile law, co-founded the JLC in 1975. She is a passionate advocate for women’s and children’s rights, having authored or co-authored numerous appellate and amicus briefs in state and federal appeals courts throughout the country, including many before the Supreme Court of the United States. Ms. Levick may be reached at email@example.com.