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Pa. Fed. Ct. Joins the Fray: Juvie Life-Sentence Ban Is Retroactive

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

It might be one of the least talked about legal issues splitting our nation's courts right now, though we've certainly done our share of babbling about it. It's the resentencing of juvenile lifers, a question that has led to intra-state (federal and state courts conflicting) and interstate splits, with more courts than we can count coming down on both sides of the question since the U.S. Supreme Court's Miller v. Alabama decision in 2012.

What's the issue? Miller held that juveniles must be afforded an "individualized" determination of the offender's age, childhood, life experience, degree of responsibility the youth was capable of exercising, and the chances for rehabilitation -- essentially a heavily scrutinized review that is supposed to limit the amount of life-without-parole sentences.

Now, U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has joined the discussion, holding that Miller is retroactive -- a holding that is made ever the more interesting by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's holding late last year that Miller is not retroactive.

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Why Miller Is Not Retroactive: Arguments

Judge Savage recaps the argument against retroactivity: procedural rules, under Teague and its progeny, are typically not retroactive. Courts that have ruled that Miller is not retroactive view its holding as an announcement of a new procedural rule: Juveniles get the new exhaustive evaluation mentioned above.

Why Miller Is Retroactive: Judge Savage's Take

Judge Savage, however, presents two compelling arguments for retroactivity. Before touching Teague analysis, Savage notes that when Miller reached the High Court, it was paired with a second case, Jackson v. Hobbs. Miller was on direct appeal; Jackson was on collateral review. Instead of only applying the new rule to the direct Miller appeal, it applied it retroactively in the collateral Jackson case as well.

In short: The Court has already applied the case retroactively.

Second, when it comes to Teague, Savage disagreed that it was a purely procedural rule. His interpretation of Miller was that it was a ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles and that the procedure announced was merely a means of implementing what was, at its heart, a substantive rule.

Keeping Score

For the record, the Third Circuit hasn't touched the issue of juvenile life sentences yet. In fact, of all the federal appeals courts, only the Eleventh Circuit has addressed the question of Miller's retroactivity, holding that it was not retroactive.

At last check, the Sixth Circuit was holding the issue pending appeal and should issue a ruling soon. Meantime, Michigan's Supreme Court held ruled last month against retroactivity.

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