The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that people sentenced to life in prison as juveniles should be given the chance to argue for their release—a decision that could chart a "bold new direction" toward justice system reform, a leading human rights group said.
The U.S. is the only country that still sentences minors to life in prison without parole.
In a 6-3 vote Monday, the court said its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which abolished mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, applies retroactively. That means people still in prison for crimes committed as children will now have the chance to receive new sentencing or an opportunity to argue for their release, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
The ruling stems from the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana. The plaintiff, Henry Montgomery, was convicted of shooting dead a sheriff's deputy in Baton Rouge in 1963 and sentenced to life in prison at 17 years old; now, at 69, Montgomery is arguing that his rehabilitation in prison should make him eligible for parole, an appeal that was recently rejected by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Monday's decision overturns the state's ruling. In delivering the verdict, Kennedy also echoed an argument long espoused by human rights advocates—that children and minors should never be sentenced to life in prison.
Extending parole eligibility to those who were sentenced as juveniles "would neither impose an onerous burden on the States nor disturb the finality of state convictions," he wrote (pdf). "And it would afford someone like Montgomery, who submits that he has evolved from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community, the opportunity to demonstrate the truth of Miller's central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change."
Since the 2012 decision, most states agreed to review old cases of children sentenced to life in prison. Seven, including Louisiana, refused, arguing that the ruling was not retroactive. Monday's decision sends Montgomery's case back to lower courts.
Amnesty International USA praised the ruling but cautioned that it only constitutes a step toward reform.
"While every other country in the world rejects the punishment of life without parole for children, the U.S. remains the only country that locks up kids and throws away the key," said Jasmine Heiss, Amnesty senior campaigner.
As the Sentencing Project explains (pdf):
Most states, not only those affected by Miller, still allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without a chance of parole as long as the sentence is imposed through individual review rather than as a result of a mandatory statute.
"This decision represents an opportunity for the United States to chart a bold new direction toward reform in juvenile justice, and for the U.S. criminal justice system as a whole," Heiss said. "This ruling comes as the United States is grappling with the very real human rights crisis of mass incarceration. It should not stop here."
Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, also said, "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. 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."
Daniel Macallair, executive director of Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice, told the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange that the decision was "the right thing to do."
"The rest of the world has recognized the idea that it’s not a good idea to sentence children to die in prison without any hope of release," Macallair said.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented.