Supreme Court Extends Parole Rights to Juvenile Murderers Sentenced to Life

By Mark Walsh — January 25, 2016 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday made retroactive its decision of four years ago barring life-without-parole sentences for murders by all but the most incorrigible juvenile offenders.

The 6-3 decision will mean some 1,000 juvenile offenders sentenced before the 2012 decision will likely be paroled. Some of those offenders have spent most of their lives in prison, including the one at the center of the new decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana (Case No. 14-280). The case was watched by some in education and juvenile-justice circles because of the court’s larger jurisprudence on juvenile offenders.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which held that mandatory life without parole for those under 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, is retroactive because it meets the court’s tests for being a substantive new rule of law and not merely a procedural one.

“Because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption, it rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for a class of defendants because of their status—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” Kennedy said. “As a result, Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law.”

The court’s ruling will “not require states to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life sentence without parole,” Kennedy wrote. Instead, a state may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, he said.

Kennedy’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

Writing in dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said the majority had found a “devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile offenders,” which the Miller decision claimed not to eliminate for the worst offenders.

Instead, Scalia said, the majority “merely makes imposition of that severe sanction a practical impossibility. And then, in Godfather fashion, the majority makes state legislatures an offer they can’t refuse: Avoid all the utterly impossible nonsense we have prescribed by simply ‘permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole.’ Mission accomplished.”

His dissent was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas (who also wrote a separate dissent) and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Half a Century in Prison

Montgomery was a 17-year-old high school junior in East Baton Rouge, La., in 1963 when he murdered a sheriff’s deputy.

Montgomery, now 69, was convicted and sentenced to death under Louisiana law. But he later won a new trial, was convicted again, and this time sentenced to life without parole. After the Miller decision, he sought to have it retroactively applied to him.

The Louisiana Supreme Court denied Montgomery’s plea for reconsideration of his sentence, consistent with its ruling in another prisoner’s case that the Miller decision was procedural rather than substantive in nature. It was one of seven states that had declined to apply Miller retroactively, even though a number of other states had agreed to do so.

The Supreme Court ruled on a day when most of the rest of official Washington was closed due to the heavy snow that struck the region over the weekend. Five justices took the bench for the short opinion session, while the other members of the court were believed to be traveling.

“Henry Montgomery has spent each day of the past 46 years knowing he was condemned to die in prison,” Kennedy wrote. “Perhaps it can be established that, due to exceptional circumstances, this fate was a just and proportionate punishment for the crime he committed as a 17-year-old boy.”

But in light of what the high court has said in recent years—in Miller and other decisions on the sentencing of juveniles— about how children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability, Kennedy said, “prisoners like Montgomery 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.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.