On January 25, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that will drastically affect anyone convicted of homicide that was committed before they turned 18. Under the new ruling of Montgomery v. Louisiana, juveniles who committed murder prior to turning 18 and were sentenced to life without parole are entitled to a new sentencing hearing where they can argue that the mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment. In Miller v. Alabama, which I wrote about here, the Supreme Court declared that mandatory minimums of life without parole for juvenile offenders was unconstitutional. However, Montgomery v. Louisiana has held that the Miller ruling applies retroactively to all incarcerated individuals serving life without parole sentences for 1st or 2nd degree murder. This essentially means that nearly 2,000 men and women nationwide who previously were convicted of murder, and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, will now have a possible reprieve that could grant them a chance at being paroled. Pennsylvania has the largest number of juveniles serving life without parole sentences.

Retroactive Application of Miller v. Alabama

The court’s decision was based on a case from 2012, Miller v. Alabama, in which Miller was granted the possibility of parole due to the unconstitutionality of restricting the rights of those who were underage at the time of their crimes. The SCOTUS decision was whether that ruling should apply retroactively, specifically in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, in which 69 year old Montgomery claimed he should be allowed the possibility of parole because of his drastic progress during his many years in prison.

Montgomery was initially charged with life without parole nearly 50 years ago, when he killed a police officer in Louisiana. The court returned a 6-3 verdict in favor of granting the retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama, primarily due to the good behavior Montgomery has shown during his time in Angola prison. Due to the way the earlier law was drafted, he received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for his crimes, without his age or the chance for rehabilitation being taken into account.

When the Supreme Court made their decision regarding Miller v. Alabama, Montgomery’s lawyers saw their opening for a new look at their client’s sentence. It took some time, and many failed appearances in the lower courts, but when he finally got before the Supreme Court, something surprising happened. The SCOTUS determined that their previous decision would indeed become retroactive, despite the rarity of such rulings. The court ruled that life without parole sentences are unconstitutional when laid upon juvenile defendants, adding that only in the rarest of occasions would an offender be so far beyond rehabilitation that no other option is safe for the public.

The court made their decision by taking into account the full scope of what they have ruled in the most recent cases regarding this issue. They claim that their admission to the differences between child and adult offenders inexorably lead to the decision that prisoners who were convicted under such circumstances must be given an opportunity to show they are not permanently corrupted. By doing so, they gave many prisoners a glimpse of real hope that they might taste freedom once again, even if only briefly.

New Hearings Possible for as Many as 2,000 Inmates

It has been estimated that as many as 2,000 inmates who were convicted to life without parole before the age of 18 may require new hearings in light of the SCOTUS ruling. Some states had already adopted the SCOTUS ruling before it was made fully retroactive, but even those inmates haven’t had the chance for new hearings yet. In Pennsylvania, the courts had declared that Miller v. Alabama was not to be applied retroactively. However, the Montgomery case has now reversed the Pennsylvania courts and allowed Pennsylvania juvenile lifers the opportunity to get back into court with the filing of a request for a new sentencing hearing via the Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA).

The problem arises when the time for these hearings comes about. Many of the juvenile offenders have been in prison for well over 20 years, and the lawyers, evidence, witnesses, and other court records might not be readily available, or might not exist at all anymore. In light of the potential cost, manpower, and time that might be spent on these hearings, the Supreme Court declared that states could immediately parole any eligible prisoners if they no longer appear to be a threat to themselves or others.

Three of the Supreme Court judges disagreed with the ruling, stating that such decisions are dangerous and irresponsible. Many analysts have postulated that this will only be the first decision by a court majority that seeks to lessen or totally remove punishments on underage offenders. In the short term, the decision by the Supreme Court will do nothing but clog up the courts with new hearings, many of which will be successful.

The Beginning of More Change for Our Justice System?

It’s important to distinguish that the new ruling does not force the states to grant parole to each prisoner who was convicted in their youth. Instead, it merely opens the doorway for the possibility of parole, but due to the way the court system functions, many of those possibilities will result in parole, primarily due to the lack of support against such claims.

Perhaps to understand the full impact of the SCOTUS decision, one must look at a larger picture of the justice system. Decisions like this tend to be the start of massive changes, especially when a majority of the court is in agreement over several issues. This decision will most likely only open the path to more retroactive decisions, new precedents that are based on this ruling, and further ‘fine-tuning’ by the Supreme Court in their attempts to balance the scales of justice as fairly as possible.

If your loved one was convicted of 1st or 2nd degree murder while a juvenile and is currently serving life without parole, we urge you to contact our office to discuss this new ruling as court filings must be submitted within 60 days of the date of the January 25, 2016 ruling in Montgomery.