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Supreme Court Further Limits Juvenile Life Without Parole Convictions

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 25, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Four years ago, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole were an unconstitutional violation of the Eighth Amendment. Since then, there has been significant debate about Miller's reach: are automatic life without parole sentences verboten only for offenders sentenced after the Court's ruling, or should childhood offenders from long ago be given the opportunity of parole?

Today (while the rest of Washington took the day off to shovel itself out of the snow) the Court settled the debate, ruling that Miller applied retroactively and that all mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, whether the sentencing took place five days or 50 years ago.

A Lifer at 17

Henry Montgomery killed East Baton Rouge, Louisiana deputy sheriff Charles Hurt in 1963. The crime occurred just a few days after Montgomery's seventeenth birthday. He was eventually found "guilty without capital punishment" on his second trial, after the Louisiana Supreme Court found that "public prejudice" had tainted his first prosecution.

That verdict meant that Montgomery was sentenced automatically to life without the possibility of parole. After almost five decades of prison, the Court decided Miller and Montgomery sued to have his sentence reviewed. The Supreme Court of Louisiana, however, ruled that Miller does not have retroactive effect. While Miller would have prevented Montgomery's sentence had he been tried in 2013, it had no effect on sentences that were final before the decision.

Substantive Constitutional Rules Require Retroactive Effect

The Supreme Court disagreed, however, interpreting Justice O'Connor's plurality opinion in Teague v. Lane. Under Teague, a new constitutional rule doesn't generally apply to final convictions. However, there are two exceptions to that retroactivity bar: when the rule is a "substantive rule of constitutional law," such as rules forbidden certain types of punishment, or "watershed rules of criminal procedure." Miller falls into the first category, the Court said.

State collateral review courts must give such substantive rules retroactive effect, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority. "When a State enforces a proscription or penalty barred by the Constitution," Kennedy wrote, "the resulting conviction or sentence is, by definition, unlawful."

Like Miller, today's ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana doesn't ban juvenile life without parole altogether. But it does open up the chance of parole for many once-young offenders whose crimes did not reflect "an irreparable condition," but rather than "the transient immaturity of youth."

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