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Opinion analysis: Further limit on life sentences for youthful criminals

No juvenile who commits murder or another serious crime can be sentenced to life without parole unless it is clear that the youth is doomed to a life of crime — that is, is so “corrupt” as to lack any capacity for reform, the Supreme Court ruled by a six-to-three vote on Monday.  The decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, expanding on a major ruling four years ago, will also provide a chance for early release of a thousand or more inmates whose life sentences are now unconstitutional but were valid when imposed years earlier.

The ruling invites states not to spend time figuring out a new sentence to replace those now struck down, but rather to consider granting parole — release from prison but with conditions on future behavior.

But the ruling also allows states to avoid having to obey the new ruling for closed cases by simply removing from inmates the legal right to use federal law in state courts to attack life without parole sentences, once their convictions have become final in state courts.  If states take that option, the impact of Monday’s ruling would fall on federal courts and the habeas process in those courts for reviewing convictions that are final.

In a way, the ruling was technically only about whether the Court would apply retroactively its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, declaring that life without parole should be an “uncommon,” even “rare,” sentence for an individual who was under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime.  Making a decision retroactive means that inmates whose convictions have become final can begin anew their challenges, to take advantage of the new decision.

The new decision does make Miller retroactive to cases that were final before the date of that ruling — June 25, 2012.  But it also appears to go beyond the actual scope of the Miller ruling, by strengthening the chance that a newly convicted juvenile will be able to show, at the time of sentencing, that he is not beyond rehabilitation to become a law-abiding individual.  Life without parole, the Court declared, is always unconstitutional for a juvenile unless he or she is found to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”

For inmates who as youths many years ago were sentenced to life without parole, the ruling gives them a chance to reopen their sentence with an attempt to show that, at that time, they were not beyond rehabilitation — a point that they apparently can try to prove by offering evidence of their good behavior as prisoners in the years since.

Those aspects of the ruling appeared to go beyond what the Court had decided in the Miller case itself, which required judges who sentence defendants under the age of eighteen to take their youth into account, to make sure the punishment was appropriate for each individual.  Monday’s dissenting Justices, in fact, complained that the new decision had “distorted” the meaning of the Miller decision and will force sentencing judges to try to figure out “a knotty legal question” — what were the prospects for rehabilitation at the time of sentencing?

The Miller ruling only applied in 2012 to sentences that had not yet become final.  That left open the question whether the ruling would apply to cases that had been completed before, perhaps long before, the Miller ruling was issued.  That is the fundamental constitutional question the Court has now answered, making its bar on mandatory life-without-parole sentences applicable to already closed cases — in federal trial courts, and also in state trial courts — if the state courts have (and retain, in the future) the authority to hear challenges based on federal law as it applies to sentencing.

Because the new case reached the Court from a state supreme court, in Louisiana, the Justices had to first decide that they had the authority to review the state court’s refusal to make Miller retroactive to the case of Henry Montgomery, and other Louisiana inmates sentenced as youths to life without parole.  Montgomery was given that sentence for murdering a deputy sheriff in 1963, when Montgomery was just two weeks past his seventeenth birthday.

Montgomery, now 69, has spent most of his life in prison under a sentence that now turns out to be unconstitutional.  He has claimed that he has turned his life around in prison, which the Court noted but did not rule on.  It left it up to state courts to decide whether to release Montgomery outright, release him on parole, or impose a new sentence for the murder.  While Montgomery seems very likely to be able to benefit from the ruling, others in his position who have not yet brought a challenge like his may lose that option if Louisiana now opts to take away post-conviction review of sentences based on claims under federal, rather than state, law.  Right now, Louisiana permits such challenges — as in Montgomery’s case and a few others.

The process that the Court uses to decide whether to make one of its criminal law rulings retroactive, to closed cases, dates from its 1989 ruling in Teague v. Lane, which requires new rulings by the Justices to apply retroactively when they declare a new rule of “substantive” law.  Confronting that issue on Monday, the Court ruled that Miller did establish such a rule, and thus it had to be made retroactive to closed cases.

But the ruling’s clarification — or, apparently, its expansion — of Miller will now rule out all future life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who commit crimes before age of eighteen, unless prosecutors can prove to a judge that a particular youth is beyond saving as a reformed person.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who has written the Court’s major opinions in recent years giving juveniles greater protection in the criminal justice system, wrote today’s decision.  The opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas joined in a dissenting opinion written by Scalia, and Thomas wrote a separate dissenting opinion for himself.



Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Further limit on life sentences for youthful criminals, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 25, 2016, 12:26 PM),