U.S. Supreme Court Extends Parole Rights for Juveniles Convicted of Murder             

On January 25, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, 6-3, that its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama banning life-without-parole sentences for juvenile killers must be applied retroactively.[1]

Important for the Court was its conclusion that the earlier decision had been grounded on the diminished culpability of all juvenile offenders, who are, the Court said, immature, susceptible to peer pressure and capable of change. Very few, the opinion said, are incorrigible. But as a general matter the punishment was out of bounds. As a result, a court, upon petition by such a prisoner, must hold a re-sentencing hearing in order to give the petitioner “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.” Alternatively the state could make them eligible for parole without a hearing

Henry Montgomery, the petitioner in the instant case, was 17 when he committed the murder and now is 69 in a Louisiana prison. The Court’s opinion said there was evidence that he deserved to be released, describing “his evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community” and noting that he was a coach on the prison boxing team, had worked in the prison’s silk-screen program and had offered advice to younger inmates.

The opinion for the Court was written by Mr. Justice Anthony Kennedy and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. Dissenting were Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito.

Bryan Stevenson was the successful attorney for the petitioner in the 2012 case, Miller v. Alabama, which is discussed in Chapter Fourteen of his book, Just Mercy.[2] Although he was not the attorney for the petitioner, Montgomery, in the case decided today, Stevenson did submit an amicus curiae brief supporting Montgomery on behalf of the Equal Justice Initiative on Behalf of Dozens Sentenced to Die in Prison When They Were Children.

New York Times editorial applauded the latest decision with these words: “The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly over the last decade that it is morally and constitutionally wrong to equate offenses committed by emotionally undeveloped adolescents with crimes carried out by adults. It made this point again [in the Montgomery case]when it ruled that people who were sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole as juveniles have the right to seek parole.” The Times concluded by recommending that the Court “should take the final step. That means outlawing life sentences without parole for children altogether, whether mandatory or not.”


[1] Opinions, Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Jan. 25, 2016); U.S. Sup. Ct. Docket, Montgomery v. Louisiana (No. 14-280); Liptak, Justices Expand Parole Rights for Juveniles Sentenced to Life for Murder, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2016)

[2] Docket, Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646 (U.S. Sup. Ct.); Opinions, Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646 (June 25, 2012),  A prior post reviewed the amazing advocacy for justice by Bryan Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative.