Juvenile Offenders Sentenced To Life Just Caught A Big Break From SCOTUS

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Houston

Henry Montgomery is 69 years old. He has spent his entire adult life in prison.

In 1963, Montgomery killed a sheriff’s deputy in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was 17 years old at the time of his crime and was sentenced under a state law that required a sentence of life in prison without parole.

On Monday, however, the Supreme Court announced in Montgomery v. Louisiana that “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.” Under this decision, thousands of people sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles could be given back some portion of their life.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s 6-3 decision in Montgomery is the second in a series of case offering mercy to juvenile offenders. The first such case, Miller v. Alabama held in 2012 that people who were juveniles at the time of their offense may only be sentenced to life without parole under very unusual circumstances. As Kennedy explains, “Miller required that sentencing courts consider a child’s ‘diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change’ before condemning him or her to die in prison. Although Miller did not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to impose life without parole on a juvenile, the Court explained that a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect ”irreparable corruption.’'”

An open question after Miller, however, is whether this decision would apply retroactively to people like Montgomery whose sentences were finalized before the Court declared them unconstitutional. The Court’s precedents draw a distinction between “procedural” decisions that merely regulate “the manner of determining the defendant’s culpability,” and “substantive” decisions that forbid “criminal punishment of certain primary conduct” or “a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.” Substantive rules are retroactive; procedural rules are not.

Louisiana, for its part, argued that Miller was only a procedural decision “because it did not place any punishment beyond the State’s power to impose.” Rather, it “required sentencing courts to take children’s age into account before condemning them to die in prison,” while still permitting this punishment in rare cases. This argument, however, did not convince a majority of the justices.

Miller, Kennedy explains, “took as its starting premise the principle . . . that ‘children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.’ These differences result from children’s ‘diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.'” As the Court held in Miller:

“First, children have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’ leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Second, children ‘are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures,’ including from their family and peers; they have limited ‘control over their own environment’ and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. And third, 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.’”

These traits diminish the justifications for imposing a harsh sentence on juvenile offenders. “Because retribution ‘relates to an offender’s blameworthiness, the case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult,’” Montgomery explains. Similarly, harsh sentences are less likely to deter bad behavior in juveniles because “the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults— their immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity—make them less likely to consider potential punishment.” The natural process of maturation into adulthood, moreover, “diminishes the likelihood that a juvenile offender ‘‘forever will be a danger to society.’’”

The heart of Miller is that a judge may not sentence a juvenile offender to life without parole without considering “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.” This requirement, according to Montgomery is not simply a procedural hurdle. Rather, it “rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for ‘a class of defendants because of their status’—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.” Thus, Miller must be understood as a substantive rule, retroactively applied to offenders like Montgomery.

The Equal Justice Initiative estimates that nearly 3,000 inmates were sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. Other estimates place the number closer to 2,500. In any event, Montgomery means that every one of these inmates who was sentenced in violation of Miller will have the opportunity to seek a lesser sentence. That does not guarantee their freedom, but it does mean that they must not be judged solely according to the person they were when they were not even old enough to vote.