Supreme Court Provides Relief To Teens Given Life Sentences

In a ruling handed down yesterday, The Supreme Court provided hope to many prison inmates who were sentenced as teenagers to mandatory life in prison without parole. They will now be given the opportunity to argue why they should be released from incarceration.

The decision, made by the highest court in the land, expanded a 2012 ruling that made it unconstitutional to incarcerate juveniles for life without the possibility of parole. The ruling must now be applied retroactively, providing relief to approximately 1,200 to 1,500 inmates. Justice Kennedy, who wrote the latest opinion, indicated that those inmates should be given the opportunity to argue for parole at their re-sentencing hearings.

The 2012 case was brought by Henry Montgomery, who as a teen was sentenced to life without parole in Louisiana in 1963. He was 17 years old when he shot and killed a law enforcement officer. Now 69, Montgomery believes that he rehabilitated himself in prison and deserves to be considered for parole. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled against him, however, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, declaring that the 2012 ruling is retroactive.

A change in sentence for all those teens sentenced this way is not a guarantee. Even Justice Kennedy acknowledged that there may be the rare case where the juvenile offender can never be rehabilitated and thus, life without parole may still be justified.

Kennedy also explained in the ruling that the reason why he found the mandatory life without parole sentences unfair for juvenile offenders was because children have “diminished culpability” and also, a “heightened capacity for change.” In the dissent, Justice Scalia criticized the Court’s ruling. He criticized the retroactivity of the ruling.

I applaud this ruling. Think about Henry Montgomery for a moment. Without question, he committed a heinous crime. I’m confident that the loss that he caused to the family of the sheriff deputy that he killed was enormous. Additionally, the negative impact on the community was also extraordinary. However, it’s important to also consider Montgomery’s age at the time and his accompanying mental capacity. At 17 years of age, the frontal lobe of his brain hadn’t been fully formed. That’s the portion that governs reasoning and judgment. Fast forward 52 years, the person that he is today, after over five decades of incarceration, cannot plausibly be analogized to the person he was when he first came into prison as a teen.

I’m not suggesting that all teens given life without parole should be paroled. The Supreme Court isn’t either. There will be rare circumstances when paroling some rare inmates is not in society’s best interest. However, I think fundamental fairness requires at least considering each person’s unique circumstances to determine if release is appropriate.