In 2012, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear Miller v. Alabama, which involved two 14-year-old boys who were convicted of murder during an attempted robbery. The state court allowed the juveniles to be tried as adults. As a result, at 14-years-old, they were sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole due to mandatory sentencing guidelines, which did not allow the judge to consider any factors related to the juvenile’s life. In evaluating the state’s decision, the Supreme Court ruled that life without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, when mitigating factors are not considered in the sentencing. The judge writing for the majority stated:
“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.”
Jurisdictions have split on whether the Miller rule is required to be applied to those sentenced to life prior to the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision. As of mid-2014, ten states have made changes to their criminal justice systems banning mandatory life sentences for children under the age of 18 regardless of whether they were tried as juveniles or adults based on the Miller rule. However, other states have not applied the Miller rule retroactively as there are currently 2,000-2,500 children that are serving life sentences. Some of those currently serving their sentences were sentenced as young as 13. Those states that have not implemented the Supreme Court ruling retroactively have refused for a number of reasons such as: (1) wanting to show the public that they are still taking juvenile crimes seriously, (2) preventing repeat offenders from gaining access to the public after committing violent crimes, and (3) showing the public that they have the mindset that criminals cannot change.
Although the transition to abolish life sentences for juveniles has been slow and some states have been resistant, the Supreme Court has shown that there is hope. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court announced its intentions to hear Montgomery v. Louisiana, which could clear up any questions surrounding Miller and whether the Miller rule should be applied retroactively to all jurisdictions. The juvenile that was convicted in the Montgomery case is currently serving his life sentence. He was convicted at age 17 in 1963 of murder and has been incarcerated in a state penitentiary for more than 50 years. If the court determines that the Miller rule should be applied retroactively in the Montgomery case, the approximately 2,000 juvenile offenders serving their current life sentences would be resentenced based on these less rigid standards. If in 2012 the Court found that requiring children to serve life sentences in prison was considered cruel and unusual punishment, the constitutionality of the rule has not changed regardless of whether the juvenile was sentenced prior to 2012 or after.
It is crucial that the Supreme Court resolve the questions associated with the Miller decision and explicitly provide state courts the direction on whether to apply the rule retroactively or not to those juveniles previously sentenced to life. If the court decides to rule in favor of the applying the rule retroactively, the criminal justice system will be affected significantly, particularly administratively. Some states have begun the process of applying the Miller rule retroactively by starting the re-sentencing hearings, and will be less affected by the ruling. However, there are approximately 2,500 juveniles in the remaining states that have not started the process. Practitioners, courts, and judges in these particular states will have an influx of new sentencing hearings on their calendars. In addition to the actual hearings, practitioners representing and prosecuting these former juveniles sentenced to life will be tasked with the burden of finding additional evidence for the re-sentencing hearing. The re-sentencing hearing will consider the juvenile’s home life, mental capacity at the time the murder was committed, among other things in determining the mitigating factors present for a new sentence; all things that were not previously considered by the courts in mandatory sentencing. Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike will have to dig deep into the juvenile’s past to assist in their cases. In addition, prosecutors will have the burden of contacting victims’ families to receive their input on the new sentences. The Supreme Court has not set a date for oral arguments, but it is likely they will be heard later this year as thousands wait to see if they will be resentenced.
By Emma McArthur
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner
Photo by ssalonso via Flickr