By Carmen Daugherty, CFYJ Policy Director
In the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama decision, the Court found that a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole is unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment when applied to those who are under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes. This decision followed several 8th Amendment decisions acknowledging the lesser culpability of youth offenders, including banning the death penalty for youth, and banning life without possibility of parole for youth who commit non-homicide offenses.
This week, the Supreme Court ruled Miller retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana. Thus, those youth sentenced to die in prison prior to the Miller decision will now be given a chance at review and possibly parole. Henry Montgomery, who at the age of 17 was convicted of murdering a sheriff, was sentenced to life without the possibility in parole. “The sentence was automatic upon the jury’s verdict, so Montgomery had no opportunity to present mitigation evidence to justify a less severe sentence. That evidence might have included Montgomery’s young age at the time of the crime; expert testimony regarding his limited capacity for foresight, self-discipline, and judgment; and his potential for rehabilitation.”
The Court noted in Miller that youth are prone to recklessness, immaturity, irresponsibility, more vulnerable to peer pressure, less able to avoid negative environments, and more amenable to rehabilitation than adults and therefore punishment should be “graduated and proportioned” not only to the offense but also to the offender. The Court punctuated these concerns with what it calls a “foundational principle: that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.” In the Court’s Montgomery decision, these foundational principles continued to influence the court’s 6-3 decision.
For a further analysis and full opinions, see here.