In a decision that could affect more than 1,000 inmates, the Supreme Court has ruled that people serving life terms in prison for murders they committed as teenagers must have the opportunity to pursue their freedom.
Voting 6 to 3, the justices sided with a 2012 ruling striking down automatic life terms without the chance of parole for teens convicted of murder. Now, even those found guilty decades ago must either be allowed a shot at parole or given a new sentence.
The specific case in question involved Henry Montgomery, who, in 1963, killed a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the age of 17. Montgomery has been in prison for more than 50 years.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, states that prisoners such as 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 went on to say states were not obligated to resentence those serving life terms, but states must at least offer parole hearings. Release would be a possibility, but not guaranteed.
In the 2012 decision, the justices struck down laws mandating automatic life sentences without chance of parole for teenage murderers, but did not address whether the ruling in Miller v. Alabama could be applied retroactively to hundreds of inmates such as Montgomery.
Writing for the 5 to 4 majority in the 2012 decision, Justice Elena Kagan said judges considering prison terms for juveniles must take into account “the mitigating qualities of youth,” such as immaturity and the failure to fully comprehend the consequences of their actions.
According to the state of Michigan’s Supreme Court filing in Montgomery’s case, Louisiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania have more than 1,000 inmates between them who are imprisoned for life for murders they committed before the age of 18. They are among seven states that had previously refused to interpret the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling as applying to past teen convictions.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who was joined in his dissent by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, called the new ruling “just a devious way of eliminating life without parole for juvenile defenders.”
Although he dissented from the majority in the 2012 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the majority this time around, joining with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breye, Kennedy and Kagan.