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Reconsidering Juvenile Life Sentences—Again

A new Supreme Court case could affect thousands of prisoners serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as teens.
(Photo: BrAt82/Shutterstock)

(Photo: BrAt82/Shutterstock)

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear arguments in Montgomery v. Louisiana, a case that will determine whether inmates serving life in prison who committed their crimes as juveniles have the right to appeal their sentences. The case’s namesake, Henry Montgomery, was 17 years old in 1963 when he shot and killed a deputy sheriff in Baton Rouge. He was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole, and has been in prison ever since. He is now 68.

Montgomery’s is the latest in a long line of court cases that implicitly asks the question, should someone who commits a crime before they turn 18 die in prison of old age?

To be more precise, the actual question that Montgomery seeks to answer is the same one that was left unanswered by an earlier Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama—the question of whether that ruling should, or should not, be applied retroactively to past cases. In 2012, the Court’s decision on Miller had declared mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles to be unconstitutional. (That ruling on Miller had in turn extended a 2010 ruling that such sentences were unconstitutional in all cases except those involving homicide, which had itself built on a 2005 ruling barring the death penalty for juveniles.)

Rather than relying on mandatory sentences, Miller dictates that judges must look at each case on its merits, and each offender’s circumstances as unique. As in those previous cases, the decision hinged on the justices’ belief that mandatory life sentences or death penalty sentences were cruel and unusual punishment for young offenders who should be held to different standards than adults. Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her majority opinion:

Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him— and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.

Despite the court’s gradual progress toward leniency and optimism for the country’s youngest offenders over the years, the Miller ruling still only applied to those who would be sentenced from that point on; Montgomery will decide whether it has to be applied to current inmates. Otherwise, where does that leave the more than 1,500 prisoners who are currently serving out life sentences for crimes they committed as children and teenagers, but who were tried and sentenced before that 2012 ruling?

Some local judges have already taken the cue from Miller to re-visit individual cases—even the most infamous ones. Just last week, Dakotah Eliason, a 19-year-old inmate in Michigan who has served five years of his life sentence after killing his grandfather at the age of 14, returned to court. A judge is giving him the opportunity to appeal, and is reconsidering his sentence, in light of the Supreme Court ruling.

But many, many others haven’t gotten that opportunity. Erik Eckholm wrote for the New York Times last January about the thousands of inmates serving life without parole for juvenile crimes while states figure out how, or whether, to act. For instance, California was allowing inmates to apply for re-sentencing hearings while Pennsylvania’s State Supreme Court decided not to revisit any of the mandatory life sentences in its juvenile murder cases—of which there were more than 450 as of last year. Louisiana also declined; it had 230 inmates in the same situation, according to the Times. These are the discrepancies that Montgomery should address.

As it happens, this case comes at a time when the idea of re-visiting (and potentially re-sentencing) past juvenile crimes is a hot topic among state judges and lawmakers. Just last week, Florida’s Supreme Court threw out all of the sentences for inmates who had received mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. The court cited the 2012 Miller decision directly in its ruling. All of the approximately 250 state prisoners that this decision affects will be re-sentenced.

Some Connecticut lawmakers want to take the idea slightly further, in proposing a law that could potentially affect all juvenile sentences—not just life sentences. According to the Middletown Press, state senators have proposed a so-called “Second Look” law that would allow prisoners who committed crimes as juveniles—and who have already served 12 years (or 60 percent) of their sentences—to be eligible for new parole hearings, and, potentially, new sentences. (The fate of the bill is unclear; similar bills have failed in years past.)

Speaking about “Second Look,” Sarah Russell, a Quinnipiac law professor, pointed out that if the criminal justice system would give juveniles with the harshest punishments a fresh chance for parole, it also makes sense to give the same opportunity to inmates with lesser sentences. “Often those serving the longer sentences were the direct actors—triggerman who intended physical harm—whereas those serving somewhat shorter sentences were the lookouts or drivers in felony murder cases and intended no physical harm,” she told the the New Haven Independent.

Despite the differences in the details, all of these rulings and proposals are motivated by the same arguments—that youth is a time when brains and bodies are in flux, and that young criminals are inherently more vulnerable to outside pressures and circumstances than adults are, and so should be punished differently than adults. Not that juvenile offenders should not be sent to prison, but that they should be given the opportunity to reform, and the opportunity for their cases to be, at some point, re-visited.

As Brianna Boone, a law student at the University of Minnesota, wrote in a recent Minnesota Law Review article about Miller v. Alabama, “The fact that juveniles’ unique characteristics are not permanent is a main justification for treating juveniles differently. The Court stresses that because juveniles can change, courts should not mandatorily subject juveniles to punishments that foreclose a chance to change.”

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.