The Supreme Court’s Latest Consideration of Life Sentences for Juveniles in Montgomery v. Louisiana

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.

The petitioner, Henry Montgomery, has been a prisoner in Louisiana’s Angola prison since 1963 serving a mandatory life without parole sentence that he received for a crime committed when he was 17 years old. At his trial, the court was not able to factor in his age or other life circumstances in deciding whether he should be sentenced to die in prison because of the mandatory nature of the sentence. The majority opinion from Miller says that consideration of these factors is required. If the Court holds that Miller is retroactive, as 12 state supreme courts already have, Montgomery, who has spent more than 50 years in prison, and others upon whom these mandatory sentences were imposed, will be eligible for a resentencing hearing and possible eventual release.

For the 2,000 individuals, now grown adults, whose future hangs on whether and how the justices rule in Montgomery, the oral arguments probably didn’t bring much relief, as the justices gave little indication of which way they were leaning. As a non-lawyer, it is easy to look beyond the complex jurisdictional issue to what is fair by common sense standards. And it is clear from this perspective that the individuals currently serving lifelong prison terms should benefit from the Miller ruling because their sentence was delivered on the basis of beliefs about them that have now been completely debunked.

As Justice Kagan noted in the majority opinion for Miller, there are several childhood-related factors that are vital for consideration at sentencing, but these factors are not allowed in mandatory sentencing structures. I am both fortunate and haunted to have gotten to know about the childhood environments of many of these individuals. In 2010 and 2011, I surveyed more than 1,500 of those serving LWOP for crimes committed in their youth. Their backgrounds revealed extensive exposure to violent communities, families, and peer groups which clearly shaped their worldview. Before they were victimizers, they were clearly victims, and Miller establishes this as critically important to consider.

It was also clear from my research that these individuals are not the same as they were 15 years ago; their time in prison has allowed them to not only reflect on the bad choices they made during adolescence, but to demonstrate that they now possess the ability to act differently, foresee outcomes, and express remorse.