Supreme Court to Weigh Retroactivity of Mandatory JLWOP


WASHINGTON – A U.S. Supreme Court decision could forever alter the landscape of sentences of mandatory juvenile life without parole, potentially leading to resentencing hearings for some 2,100 convicted murderers.

The high court agreed on March 20 to hear a case that could set a precedent on whether its landmark 2012 Miller v. Alabama ruling applies to cases decided before that ruling.

In the 5-4 Miller ruling, the court did not specify definitively whether the decision should apply retroactively, and lower federal courts and state courts have been divided on the issue.

If the Supreme Court decides Miller should be applied retroactively, those sentenced before the ruling to mandatory life without parole for murders committed as juveniles could receive sentence reviews. Depending on the state, they could still be sentenced to life without parole, to life with parole eligibility after a specified number of years or be released, likely for time served, said Emily Keller, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

Opponents of mandatory juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) hailed the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the retroactivity issue on a Louisiana case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, expected to be heard this fall.

“We’re really hopeful that the Supreme Court will rule that Miller applies retroactively and that the thousands of individuals serving these unconstitutional sentences will have an opportunity for new sentencing hearings,” Keller said.

Of the court’s decision to take up the case, Keller said: “It’s a very hopeful sign; it’s a signal that the court thinks this is an important issue that needs to be addressed, and we’re hopeful that they’ll rule that Miller does apply retroactively and that everyone does get a chance to receive a constitutional sentence.”

Florida just became the 10th state whose Supreme Court ruled Miller v. Alabama should apply retroactively. (The other states are Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.)

Courts in five states — Alabama, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania — have ruled Miller does not apply retroactively.

Keller said it’s patently unfair – and unconstitutional – to allow when and where a conviction took place to determine whether someone gets a resentencing hearing.

“I believe it’s a matter of fairness and justice, and whether or not you’re forced to serve an unconstitutional sentence shouldn’t depend on the arbitrary date that your conviction became final or the state where you reside,” she said.

Heather Renwick, litigation counsel for the Washington-based nonprofit Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, also cited the split among state court rulings on retroactivity.

“It’s inconsistent treatment across the U.S., depending on what state you’re in,” Renwick said. “So we’re hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will hold that Miller v. Alabama is retroactive so that every child sentenced under a mandatory sentencing scheme to die in prison will be afforded a second chance to demonstrate rehabilitation and the capacity to re-enter the community.”

In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled mandatory JLWOP violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Renwick said that if mandatory JLWOP was found to be cruel and unusual by the highest court in the land, the standard should apply to juveniles sentenced before the ruling.

Pennsylvania has the highest number of prisoners serving mandatory JLWOP sentences in the country, with some 500 inmates serving such sentences, including Kenneth C. Crawford III (see related story). The state’s juvenile lifers had their hopes for a resentencing hearing dashed when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in October 2013 against applying Miller retroactively.

In its ruling in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Ian Cunningham, the Pennsylvania high court stated: “Significantly, for present purposes, the Miller majority did not specifically address the question of whether its holding applies to judgments of sentence for prisoners, such as Appellant, which already were final as of the time of the Miller decision. As such, the opinion does not set out the principles governing the High Court’s retroactivity jurisprudence.”

In Michigan, too, with nearly 350 inmates serving terms of mandatory JLWOP, the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in July that Miller does not apply retroactively.

On the day the ruling was handed down, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a statement: "Today the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the rights of crime victims and their families. This ruling should bring a measure of peace to the many families who struggled with the possibility of painful resentencing hearings for cases successfully prosecuted decades ago."

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the appellant in the case, Henry Montgomery, received a sentence of mandatory JLWOP for murdering a police officer in 1963 less than two weeks after his 17th birthday.

A Montgomery v. Louisiana petition to the U.S. Supreme Court cited a lower federal court ruling and argued that the Miller decision is “a substantive constitutional rule that mandates courts to implement a new procedure in the sentencing of juveniles.”

In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court pointed to research showing adolescents’ brains are not fully developed and that youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more reckless and impulsive, more likely to take risks and less likely to consider long-term consequences.

The court said life circumstances, including trauma, must be taken into account in sentencing — and, notably, also found juveniles are amenable to rehabilitation, a finding often cited by opponents of mandatory JLWOP.

Mishi Faruqee, juvenile justice policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union, noted the United States is the only country in the world to sentence juveniles to life without parole. (The United Nations special investigator on torture, Juan E. Méndez, condemned juvenile life without parole in a report last month.)

“A child should never be sentenced to die in prison; I mean, they always have that capacity for change,” Faruqee said.

“Part of the nature of being a child is you’re still growing and developing who you are, and so I think it’s absolutely unacceptable to condemn a child to spend the rest of their life in prison. And that’s something that the whole world has recognized except the United States.”

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Gary Gately

Gary Gately is an award-winning reporter and editor who has worked for The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun and United Press International.