Supreme Court: Inmates Sentenced As Juveniles May Appeal Life Sentences

The Supreme Court has ruled inmates, who were sentenced as juveniles and received life in prison without the possibility of parole, may appeal their sentence. The ruling is tied to the high court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama — which requires judges to consider an offender’s age and prohibits mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility fo parole for juvenile offenders.

NBC News reports the Supreme Court is notoriously reluctant to apply new rulings to prior criminal cases. However, in the case of inmates sentenced as juveniles, the high court was willing to make an exception.

In a vote of 6-2, the justices decided the Miller v. Alabama ruling shall apply to the nation’s 2,341 inmates who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole as juveniles.

Although several states have already applied the rules to inmates sentenced prior to 2012, Monday’s decision will extend the rules to all 50 states.

The Supreme Court explained Monday’s decision “ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity… will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence.” However, inmates “who have shown an inability to reform” could spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Although more than 2,000 inmates will have an opportunity to appeal their sentence, local jurisdictions have the option of avoiding costly hearings by simply adding the possibility of parole to sentences handed down prior to 2012.

Miller v. Alabama is one of four landmark cases, in which the Supreme Court changed the way juveniles are sentenced in the United States.

The Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Stanford v. Kentucky extended capital punishment to include juveniles age 16 years and older. However, in their 2005 ruling in Roper v. Simmons — the Supreme Court ruled juveniles cannot be sentenced to death.

Five years later, in Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court ruled juveniles could not be sentenced to “to life without the possibility of parole for a non-homicidal crime.”

As reported by PBS, the high court determined the harsh sentence violated juveniles’ rights as set forth in the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution — which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.

The Eighth Amendment was also cited in the high court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama. In their 2012 ruling, the Supreme Court determined juveniles cannot be subjected to mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Monday’s decision in Montgomery v. Alabama extends this ruling to include inmates sentenced as juveniles prior to 2012.

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International Business Times reports Montgomery v. Alabama centered on the 1963 case of Henry Montgomery — who was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 17 — for the murder of a Baton Rouge police officer.

Although he was a juvenile when he committed the crime, and the sentencing law changed in 2012, he would not have an opportunity to appeal his life sentence.

The Supreme Court’s latest ruling will help inmates like Henry Montgomery have their sentences reviewed. When discussing the decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said “prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

Kennedy underlined the fact that the ruling will not automatically reduce the sentences of all inmates sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole as juveniles. Washington Times reports it will simply offer those inmates an opportunity to have their sentences reviewed.

“Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate… that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

Over the last 15 years, the Supreme Court’s rulings on juvenile offenders have provided more leeway for rehabilitation. Although critics argue all criminals should be punished accordingly, the high court has shown a degree of sympathy based on the offender’s age when they committed the crimes.

[Image via Alexander Rath/Shutterstock]