In 1963 Henry Montgomery was a 17 year old living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was playing hooky from school when he was approached by a deputy sheriff assigned to round up truants. When the deputy frisked Henry, Henry pulled out a cheap .22 and fatally shot the deputy. Henry’s lawyers argued that their client, who had an I.Q. in the 70s, panicked and did not fully understand the consequences of his actions. Henry was convicted and ultimately ordered to serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Now 69 years old, Mr. Montgomery has spent 52 years of his life in prison and until January 25, 2016, had no chance of parole.
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___ that mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. This case and others concerning the sentencing of juveniles was discussed in my recent blog titled “The Teenage Brain.” Following the Miller decision, many states held that the decision did not apply retroactively. Louisiana was one of those states. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that the unconstitutionality of sentencing as enunciated in the Miller decision applied prospectively only. Thus, those serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles in Louisiana had no hope of challenging their sentence based on the Miller decision. Mr. Montgomery decided to challenge Louisiana.
The United States Supreme Court decided to hear Mr. Montgomery’s argument and on January 25, 2016 issued its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana. The Supreme Court ruled that the Miller decision applies not only to contemporary cases, but also to all those sent to prison for life, without the possibility of parole, no matter how long ago the defendant was sentenced. Thus Mr. Montgomery and others similarly situated must now be given the opportunity to petition the appropriate state court for relief from a mandatory life sentence without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile.
The Supreme Court, referring to these sentences as Miller violations, surmised that a Miller violation may be remedied by the state by permitting juvenile offenders to be considered for parole. In the Montgomery decision, the Supreme Court recognized that “allowing [these] offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured—will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment” and that this applied to juvenile offenders no matter how long ago they were sentence. This reflects the Supreme Court’s acknowledgment that the teenage brain is not yet mature.
The Montgomery decision does not mean that every “lifer” who was sentenced for a juvenile crime is entitled to automatic parole, only that he or she is entitled to an opportunity for a parole hearing. As the Supreme Court noted, life in prison is a disproportionate sentence for a juvenile offender except in those rare occasions where the juvenile offender “exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.”
The Montgomery decision is an extension of the Court’s evolving understanding of juvenile offenders and the influence of the teen brain’s “transient immaturity.” There are, as the Supreme Court acknowledges, the rare juvenile “whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.” The Montgomery opinion not only gives hope for release from prison to those such as Henry Montgomery but makes it clear that for the vast majority of juvenile offenders, mandatory life without parole is a sentence that should be as rare as the juvenile whose crime is so depraved that there would be no chance the offender could ever be rehabilitated.