U.S. Supreme Court holds Miller retroactive, providing review opportunities for youth

Miller is retroactive, U.S. Supreme Court rules

January 25, 2016

Washington, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that any child sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole is eligible for review. Further, the Court said that any child serving life without parole – except for the rare cases where it has been found that the child’s crimes reflect “permanent incorrigibility” – violates the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Today’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana provides review opportunities for thousands of youth sentenced to die in prison before the Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama nearly four years ago that it is a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment to impose an automatic sentence of life-without-parole upon a person who was younger than 18 at the time of a crime.

“People told as children that they would leave prison only in a pine box now will have an opportunity to demonstrate that they have changed and are ready to re-enter society,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “All children possess the capacity for change, and this ruling affirms that when and where a youth committed a crime should not determine whether he or she should die in prison.”

The case was brought to the Court on behalf of Henry Montgomery. He is serving a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for a crime he committed at age 17. Mr. Montgomery is now 69 years old and has spent more than 50 years in prison.

Before today’s decision, state courts were divided on this issue. As a result of today’s decision, well over 1,000 people sentenced as children to die in prison will be eligible for review.

“The Miller ruling was rooted in developmental research documenting that children are what the Court refers to as ‘constitutionally different’ from adults and this ruling was a logical extension of that,” said Heather Renwick, legal director at the Campaign. “It makes logical sense that the Court apply Miller to all children, regardless of when they were sentenced.”

Since the Miller decision, the number of states that ban life without parole sentences for children has tripled. At the same time, elected officials, opinion leaders and the editorial pages of major newspapers have called for an end to life-without-parole sentences for children, and President Obama has said that children are different from adults and must be held accountable in ways that account for that difference. And weeks after receiving more than 500 letters from people sentenced as children to die in prison, Pope Francis called for an end to all life sentences.

“National consensus is moving toward banning these extreme sentences for children, which the United States alone imposes,” said Kent Lavy. “As legislatures throughout the country continue to consider this issue, they will be on the right side of history as they continue to ban life-without-parole for youth and ensure that all children are held accountable in ways that reflect their age, development and experiences with trauma.”