United States Supreme Court Rules Miller v. Alabama Is Retroactive

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The United States Supreme Court today decided that states must retroactively apply the ban on mandatory death-in-prison sentences for juveniles.

In 2012, EJI lawyers argued at the Supreme Court that sentencing kids to life in prison without parole for any offense is cruel and unusual punishment, relying on the Court's recognition that children are less culpable than adults because of their unique immaturity, impulsiveness, vulnerability, and capacity for redemption and rehabilitation. On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court issued an historic ruling in Miller v. Alabama, holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger convicted of homicide are unconstitutional. The Court wrote that requiring sentencers to consider “children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change” should make such sentences “uncommon.”

Most state courts, including the highest courts of Arkansas, Nebraska, Connecticut, Florida, New Hampshire, Illinois, Mississippi, Iowa, Massachusetts, Texas, and Wyoming, as well as federal courts across the country, applied Miller retroactively to people already serving the banned sentence and granted them new sentencing hearings, but a handful of states, including Louisiana, refused to do so.

Today's decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana now requires all states to apply Miller retroactively, which means that in Louisiana, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Colorado, hundreds of people who were sentenced to die in prison for crimes when they were children are now entitled to new sentencing hearings.

Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy explained that Miller is retroactive because it announced a substantive rule of constitutional law. Because Miller bars life without parole sentences for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, "it rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for 'a class of defendants because of their status' -- that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth."

The Court underscored why Miller is a substantive rule: "Before Miller, every juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could be sentenced to life without parole. After Miller, it will be the rare juvenile offender who can receive that same sentence."

People serving juvenile life-without-parole sentences must now be afforded hearings where "youth and its attendant characteristics" are considered as sentencing factors. Alternatively, the Court wrote that states "may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them."

Importantly, states must provide an opportunity for release "to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller's central intuition -- that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change."