U.S. Supreme Court Gives Prisoners Sentenced as Juveniles a Second Chance

Hundreds of inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles in Pennsylvania, Missouri and other states could get a second chance at eventual freedom under a Supreme Court ruling Monday.
by | January 26, 2016 AT 5:30 AM

By Michael Doyle

Hundreds of inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles in Pennsylvania, Missouri and other states could get a second chance at eventual freedom under a Supreme Court ruling Monday.

In a 6-3 decision that united the court's liberals with two Republican appointees, the court said an earlier ruling that banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles applied retroactively. The ruling means the affected inmates can seek resentencing or parole hearings.

"Life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

As a result, Kennedy added, "a hearing where 'youth and its attendant characteristics' are considered as sentencing factors is necessary to separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not."

While the decision Monday applies nationwide, certain states might see an impact.

Pennsylvania, in particular, had 482 inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles, according to a legal brief filed last year. This was more than any other state, and it includes the likes of 78-year-old Joseph Ligon. An inmate at Graterford state prison, Ligon was convicted of a 1953 murder that occurred when he was 15.

Missouri had 113 inmates in similar circumstances. All told, more than 2,000 inmates nationwide are serving life without parole for juvenile crimes, according to a legal brief filed last year.

"Some of these people have already spent years, even decades in prison, they have grown up and matured in prison, contributing to their prison communities, some have mentored younger prisoners, some have earned an education or learned a trade," Katherine Mattes, director of the Tulane Law School Criminal Litigation Clinic, said in a statement.

Convening new hearings to re-examine these underlying cases will prove problematic, attorneys general for Texas, South Carolina, Kansas and 13 other states warned in a brief urging the court to reject the claim for retroactivity.

"Requiring the states to resentence hundreds of offenders, many of whose crimes were committed decades ago, would undermine the community's safety and would offend principles of finality," the states argued in the brief, led by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.

The Supreme Court's majority, though, reasoned that the constitutional logic of an earlier decision involving mandatory life sentences for juvenile crimes necessitated retroactive application.

In a 2012 case called Miller v. Alabama, the court held that a juvenile convicted of a homicide offense could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole without considering the juvenile's special circumstances, such as immaturity and potential for growth.

The case decided Monday involved a Louisiana inmate named Henry Montgomery, convicted of a 1963 murder that occurred when he was 17.

In the decision, written by Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. along with four Democratic appointees, the court concluded that the requirement set forth in the Miller v. Alabama ruling was more than simply procedural.

"Miller's conclusion that the sentence of life without parole is disproportionate for the vast majority of juvenile offenders raises a grave risk that many are being held in violation of the Constitution," Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy further insisted that the ruling "does not impose an onerous burden on the states," as full-bore resentencing hearings may not be necessary. Instead, he suggested, states could simply institute parole hearings.

In Montgomery's case, Kennedy noted, the 69-year-old inmate has attested to "his evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community." The truth of that, Kennedy argued, can now be tested in a hearing.

"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 wrote.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing a dissent joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, termed the majority decision "nothing short of astonishing."

"In Godfather fashion, the majority makes state legislatures an offer they can't refuse: Avoid all the utterly impossible nonsense we have prescribed by simply permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole," Scalia wrote.

(c)2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau