Supreme Court Ruling Limits Sentencing for Juveniles

January 28, 2016

On January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which places meaningful limits on the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole.

“The Court’s decision in Montgomery is the result of the work of many extraordinary advocates across the country, many of them my colleagues here at Northwestern Law,” said Professor Thomas F. Geraghty, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic. “The Children and Family Justice Center has long worked on the issue of ending the practice of sentencing children to die in prison without any possibility of review or release.  And the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth is devoted to ensuring that evidence used against juveniles is reliable.

Our collective efforts are moving the cause of improving criminal justice for young people in this country forward.”

Attorneys in the Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) co-authored an amicus brief in Montgomery v. Louisiana on behalf of over 100 organizations and individuals across the country, which argued “children are fundamentally different than adults in meaningful ways that require special consideration at sentencing.”

They have contributed amici for other cases cited in the Montgomery decision as well.

CFJC clinical professors, along with attorneys and advocates from around the country, filed friend-of-the-court briefs in Roper v. Simmons, which banned the death penalty for youth under 18, and Graham v. Florida, which banned life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide offenses committed by youth under the age of 18.

CWCY clinical professors authored amicus briefs in Miller v. Alabama, which held that juveniles convicted of homicide offenses could not be sentenced to life without parole, absent individualized consideration of youth-specific factors, and in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, which held that a suspect’s juvenile status must be considered in determining whether the suspect is considered to be in police “custody” under Miranda.

Last fall, the CFJC, the CWCY, and the Supreme Court Clinic worked together to host a moot argument for Mark Plaisance, the attorney who argued at the Supreme Court on behalf of Mr. Montgomery. [Montgomery is serving a life-without-parole sentence for a crime that occurred in 1963 when he was 17 years old—ed.]

The Montgomery decision, authored by Justice Kennedy, held Miller retroactive. In so doing, the Court drew upon its previous decisions in Roper, Graham, and Miller, clarifying that “Miller did bar life without parole. . . for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility” and holding that Miller announced a substantive rule that requires retroactive application to cases on state collateral review.

“The Montgomery decision cements what the Court has been saying for over a decade now,” said Shobha Mahadev, clinical assistant professor of law in the CFJC, who directs the Center’s work on the issue of lengthy sentences imposed on youth.

“Children are biologically and developmentally different from adults and those differences have constitutional significance. The Court has now declared—in no uncertain terms—that society’s harshest possible sentences can only be imposed on children in the rarest of circumstances, when rehabilitation is demonstrably impossible.”

The Court further held: “In light of what this Court has said in Roper, Graham, and Miller about how children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability, however, 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.”

“As a result of this decision,” Geraghty said, “2000 or more individuals around the country sentenced to life without any possibility of parole, for crimes that occurred when they were children, will now have the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed and to demonstrate their rehabilitation.”