Ashley Nellis

  • February 2, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., senior research analyst, The Sentencing Project

    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.

  • October 28, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Senior Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project

    It may have been presumptuous to consider Montgomery v. Louisiana a done deal in advance of the Supreme Court oral arguments on the case earlier this month, which concerns the retroactive application of a 2012 ruling that juveniles can’t be mandatorily sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). After all, the Court has invited arguments on four separate cases pertaining to the importance of adolescent development in justice matters in the past five years and ruled favorably in all of them, pointing to science-driven evidence that young people are different when it comes to temptation, ability to foresee consequences, and engagement in risky behaviors.

    The justices focused on two points of discussion, neither of which casts any doubt on the established science that concludes that adolescents are less culpable for their role in crimes—even serious crime—and more capable of reform than older defendants. The majority of the 75 minutes of oral arguments was devoted to the issue of jurisdiction, or whether the justices even had the authority to rule on the case, as Montgomery did not make it to the Supreme Court through the usual channels. Instead of working up through lower federal courts, the case emerged directly from Louisiana’s state supreme court which ruled that Miller v. Alabama did not apply to Louisiana’s more than 250 prisoners serving such sentences.

    The second topic, to which considerably less time was devoted, was whether either of the two criteria demanding retroactivity of a ruling set forth in Teague v. Lane were met in Miller. On this matter, The Sentencing Project joined with dozens of other groups in submitting an amicus brief in support of the petitioner, arguing that Teague does apply since Miller represents a transformation in law, practice and jurisprudence which corrects for the now-discredited presumption that certain children cannot be reformed. In particular, the amici wrote:

    Miller cemented a seismic shift in Eighth Amendment jurisprudence relating to children. Given its significance, its categorical nature, and the precedents from which it descends, Miller is rightly viewed as both substantive and a watershed procedural rule and thus cannot be subjected to the Teague v. Lane bar on retroactivity.