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Supreme Court: Juvenile Offenders & Life Sentences

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR


Juvenile hands on prison barsRecently the Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, essentially deciding that many prisoners serving life without parole who were juveniles when they committed their crimes may be granted a chance at freedom in their lifetimes. The case comes three years after Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. Montgomery has now made the Miller decision apply retroactively, so that anyone now serving a mandatory life-without-parole sentence that was imposed when they were juveniles is entitled to some form of relief, or at least review.

Writing for The Intercept, Liliana Segura asks what form that relief or review might take. She explains:

From state to state, the question of who will make these decisions is still up in the air. After Miller, several states simply abolished juvenile life without parole, restoring parole eligibility or imposing lesser determinate sentences on those already imprisoned. Other states opted for resentencing hearings, putting individual prisoners’ fates in the hands of a judge. For those recalcitrant states that refused to do either, Justice Kennedy sought to provide reassurance in Montgomery that the 6-3 ruling “does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole” Instead, he suggested, writing for the majority, states can give a chance for such prisoners “to be considered for parole.”

This does seem to be the simplest suggestion. States can simplify matters by granting the affected group of prisoners a right to parole hearings, despite the fact that their (now unconstitutional) sentences did not allow for such a right. The alternative—re-litigating the sentences in court—would be incredibly costly. Also, as Segura notes, it is one thing to be granted a parole hearing; it is another thing altogether to be granted parole.

[M]odest reforms have recently sought to make parole decisions more informed and less arbitrary. Nevertheless, the odds are stacked against prisoners. Both prosecutors and crime victims play a role in parole hearings, and eligible prisoners do not even meet with board members in person, but rather by videoconference. And, perhaps most importantly, decisions often come down to “the nature of the crime” rather than any proof of rehabilitation—the one thing a prisoner cannot change, even if he or she has.

The decision in Montgomery is a positive development, but incrementally so. As a country, we seem to be slowly moving away from the notion that children can be so irredeemably bad or dangerous as to warrant their removal from free society forever. That said, nothing in this decision precludes a life-without-parole sentence for a juvenile, as long as other options are considered and declined. Steps in the right direction notwithstanding, we are still the nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate. Some of those in prison were put there as children, and some of those children will still never be set free.

—Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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