Ban on mandatory life-without-parole applies to all who were sentenced when juveniles, Supreme Court rules

Handcuffed hands

The Supreme Court issued a decision today in a 6-3 opinion that states must retroactively apply the ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. The ruling comes from the case of 69-year-old Henry Montgomery, imprisoned since he was 17 for a crime he committed in 1963.

When Montgomery was sentenced at age 17, life without parole was automatic. Neither the court nor the jury was allowed to consider his age, maturity, potential for rehabilitation, or other characteristics in determining his sentence. As a result, he has spent his entire adult life in prison and has been ineligible for parole.

In his petition to the Court, Montgomery discussed “his evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community.” According to the Court, he offers advice and serves as a role model to other inmates. He helped establish an inmate boxing team, serving as a trainer and coach.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense must not be sentenced to life in prison without parole unless the court considers the juvenile’s special circumstances in light of the principles and purposes of juvenile sentencing. At the time, it wasn’t clear whether this ruling would apply to juvenile offenders like Montgomery, whose sentences were already final at the time of the 2012 decision.

Today, the Court ruled that this 2012 ruling applies not only to juvenile offenders whose cases were still pending in 2012, but to all juvenile offenders who had been automatically sentenced to life without parole. This includes Montgomery.

Similar to the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, international human rights standards prohibit cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. As such, those standards require that punishments be individualized and proportionate to the facts and circumstances of the offender and the offense. Today’s ruling brings juvenile sentencing practices in the United States into closer compliance with those international standards, requiring courts to conduct an individualized assessment of each juvenile offender in determining the appropriate sentence for the offender. As the Court recognized today, “Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence.”

Now, with Montgomery, states must ensure that juvenile homicide offenders are considered for parole. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority:

“Henry Montgomery has spent each day of the past 46 years knowing he was condemned to die in prison. 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. In light of what this Court has said . . . about how children are constitutionally different form adults in their level of culpability, however, prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their home for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

The UN Human Rights Committee has pressed the United States even further, urging it to fully comply with its international human rights obligations by entirely abolishing the sentence of life imprisonment without parole for juveniles. Today’s ruling is an important step in that direction.

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program, leads The Advocates’ work against the death penalty. She sits on the steering committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty Steering Committee, an alliance of more than 150 NGOs, bar associations, local authorities, and unions from around the globe.

Read the complete opinion.

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