Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has issued a series of landmark decisions around the criminal culpability of adolescents, drawing from neuroscience research. In 2005, the Court abolished the juvenile death penalty. In 2010, the Court banned life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide. And in 2012, the Court prohibited states from mandating life without parole for any crimes committed by minors. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that its 2012 decision must be applied retroactively, impacting over 2,000 people currently serving life sentences.
By Adam Liptak | The New York Times | January 25, 2016
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that its 2012 decision banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively, granting a new chance at release for hundreds of inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for murders they committed in their youth.
The vote was 6 to 3, and the majority decision was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s leading proponent of cutting back on the death penalty and other harsh punishments for entire classes of offenders. His opinion strengthened the 2012 decision, which merely required new sentencing where life without parole had been imposed automatically, without taking into account the defendant’s youth.
Monday’s opinion indicated that life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders should be exceedingly rare. Justice Kennedy also gave states a second option — instead of resentencing the affected prisoners, they could make them eligible for parole.
The case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280, concerned Henry Montgomery, who was 17 in 1963 when he murdered an East Baton Rouge police officer. He is now 69.
Justice Kennedy said there was evidence that Mr. Montgomery deserved to be released, describing “his evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community” and noting that he was a coach on the prison boxing team, had worked in the prison’s silk-screen program and had offered advice to younger inmates.
There are more than 2,000 people serving sentences of life without parole for crimes they committed when they were not yet 18. Many of them automatically received those sentences for murders, without individualized consideration of their youth and other factors.
In the 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that automatic life sentences for juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Life-without-parole sentences would remain permissible, the court said, but only after individualized consideration. But the court did not say whether the decision was merely prospective or whether it required new sentencing hearings or other review for offenders who had already exhausted their appeals.
The decision followed two others concerning harsh penalties for juvenile offenders. In 2005 in Roper v. Simmons, the court eliminated the juvenile death penalty. In 2010 in Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that sentencing juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole was also unconstitutional, but only for crimes that did not involve killing.
The question of whether the 2012 decision should be applied retroactively turned on whether it was substantive or procedural. New substantive decisions apply retroactively, while new procedural ones generally do not.
There was some reason to think the 2012 decision was procedural, because it required new sentencing procedures rather than banning the punishment of life without parole for all juvenile killers.
But Justice Kennedy said the decision had been grounded on the diminished culpability of all juvenile offenders, who are, he said, immature, susceptible to peer pressure and capable of change. Very few, he said, are incorrigible. But he added that as a general matter the punishment was out of bounds.
“A sentencer might encounter the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified,” he wrote. “But in light of ‘children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change,’ Miller made clear that ‘appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.’”
“As a result,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law.”
He added that complying with Monday’s ruling should not be especially burdensome. “A state may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them,” he wrote. “Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”
“Prisoners like Montgomery,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “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.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion.
Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Justice Thomas filed a separate dissent.
Justice Scalia wrote that Justice Kennedy had twisted the language in the Miller decision to make it sound categorical when it merely required a new sentencing procedure. “To say that a punishment might be inappropriate and disproportionate for certain juvenile offenders is not to say that it is unconstitutionally void,” Justice Scalia wrote.
He added that it would be very difficult for juries and judges to decide if defendants were incorrigible many years after their crimes.
“But have no fear,” Justice Scalia wrote. “The majority does not seriously expect state and federal collateral-review tribunals to engage in this silliness, probing the evidence of ‘incorrigibility’ that existed decades ago when defendants were sentenced.”
“What the majority expects (and intends) to happen,” he said, is for all states instead to allow the affected prisoners to apply for parole.
Justice Scalia added that Justice Kennedy had contradicted a passage in his 2005 majority opinion in the Roper case, which did away with the juvenile death penalty.
“One of the justifications the court gave for decreeing an end to the death penalty for murders (no matter how many) committed by a juvenile was that life without parole was a severe enough punishment,” Justice Scalia wrote. “How could the majority — in an opinion written by the very author of Roper — now say that punishment is also unconstitutional?”
Read the full article, originally published by The New York Times.