On January 25, the U.S. Supreme Court revitalized hope to as many as 2,000 inmates sentenced as teenagers to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). In its 6-3 ruling in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court settled inconsistent interpretations of Miller v. Alabama the Court’s 2012 ruling that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole under mandatory sentencing schemes. Some states had interpreted Miller to be applied retroactively while others viewed the ruling as forward-looking only. As I wrote in October, the current case emerged from Louisiana’s state supreme court which ruled that Miller v. Alabama did not apply to Louisiana’s more than 250 prisoners serving mandatory life sentences. With its favorable ruling in Montgomery, the Supreme Court has now resolved the matter by defining its opinion in Miller as a watershed rule representing a transformation in law, practice, and jurisprudence, which cannot be subjected to the Teague v. Lane bar on retroactivity.
Mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles rose significantly in the 1990s during the so-called “superpredator” era, which has now been wholly discredited as fear-based media hype (See Figure 1). Had it not been for the mandatory minimum sentences that were popularized during this time, the number of juveniles sentenced to LWOP would have been substantially lower. In last Monday’s ruling, Justice Kennedy corrected the misguided conclusion that children cannot be reformed, writing that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.” Consistent with the Court’s rulings in a series of cases over the past 10 years, children are different in ways that make the mandatory, permanent sentence of life without parole entirely inappropriate.