Supreme Court Juveniles: Juveniles Ruling

Published: January 26, 2016

Supreme Court Juveniles: Juveniles Ruling, Attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice called today’s Supreme Court decision “potentially sweeping” but warned that resentencing hearings were far from a sure path to freedom.

The Supreme Court ruled today 6-3 in Montgomery v. Louisiana that prisoners serving mandatory life sentences without parole for murders they committed as juveniles should have a chance at release via a resentencing hearing.

Though parole boards will now have to review the sentences, they won’t have to give parole, said retired law professor Victor Streib, an internationally renowned expert on the juvenile death penalty and juvenile justice. “And it would be very typical for them not to.”

The ruling means that the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision – which said that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional on Eighth Amendment grounds – should apply retroactively. Hundreds of prisoners across the country would qualify for a resentencing hearing.

Until today’s ruling, the landmark Miller decision was the latest in a series from the court rooted in the idea that children should be treated differently than adults because they are less culpable for their actions and have the potential to change.

“It’s a step in the same direction we’ve been going,” Streib said. “It follows the same argument that kids are less culpable and aren’t as deserving of punishment as adults – so in a way, this decision would be expected. The only thing that’s unusual is that the court would say that a ruling is not just effective from now on, but that it should apply to all the older sentences.”

Another attorney who has represented inmates sentenced to death before the U.S. Supreme Court called Monday’s decision “potentially sweeping.”

However, John Mills of Phillips Black, a nonprofit public interest law firm, cautioned that judges can still hand down life without parole at their own discretion.

“That is happening to people in jurisdictions where they’ve received retroactive relief under state law,” Mills said from his San Francisco office. “Their prize for having won that victory is a new, discretionary sentence of life without parole. And that kind of sentence will be available unless and until the U.S. Supreme Court holds that life without parole itself is unconstitutional.”

Daniel Macallair, executive director of Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice, called the decision a humane one. It brings the United States more in line with the rest of the world, he said. The U.S. is the only country in the world that allows juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “The rest of the world has recognized the idea that it’s not a good idea to sentence children to die in prison without any hope of release.”

“It’s great news,” said Montgomery’s cousin Dianne Coleman. She predicted she and her cousin would have a joyful conversation on Sunday, when she makes her regular visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Henry Montgomery has spent decades in prison since he was convicted in the shooting death of sheriff’s deputy Charles Hurt in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1963. He was 17 at the time of the murder.

As news of the ruling spread, Cindy Sanford, a Pennsylvania prison activist, was anticipating her regular afternoon call with Kenneth Carl Crawford III. He is serving a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for his involvement in a double murder at age 15 in 1999.

She expected she would be the one to tell Crawford, who she considers a son, about the ruling.

Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said many of those affected by the ruling have been on an emotional rollercoaster since Miller as they waited to hear how their states would respond.


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