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Supreme Court Rules That Juveniles Sentenced to Life Can Appeal for Parole
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On Monday, January 25th, the Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is considered cruel and unusual punishment, and thereby unconstitutional. The decision was 6-3, with justices Roberts, Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Kennedy, Breyer, and Kagan ruling for the majority decision. Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito dissented.

Juvenile Inmates at Riker's Island, via nytimes.com

Juvenile Inmates at Riker’s Island, via nytimes.com

In 2012, the court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional.

  
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The current decision expands upon that ruling, mandating that it is retroactive, and thereby applies to people previously sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. The decision hinged on the question of whether the 2012 case was a procedural or substantive issue. If it was a substantive ruling, then it had to be retroactive. In his decision, Kennedy wrote the following:

“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…Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law.”

The current case concerned Henry Montgomery, who was sentenced to life without parole for murdering a police officer when he was 17. He is now 69. According to the New York Times,

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“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.”

This decision affects over 2,000 people sentenced as juveniles, often for murder. These offenders are now eligible to apply for parole.



Along with Miller v. Alabama, the court has recently ruled on two other cases considering harsh sentences for juveniles. In 2005, the court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that sentencing juveniles to the death penalty was unconstitutional. In 2010, the court decided in Graham v. Florida that sentencing juveniles to life without parole was also unconstitutional, although only in cases that didn’t involve murder.

Justices Scalia and Thomas both issued dissenting opinions.



 

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