Tag Archives: life without parole

Supreme Court Decision Will Affect Thousands Serving Life Without Parole Sentences

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The incomparable Bryan Stevenson, arguing Miller v. Alabama. Credit: Art Lien, Supreme Court artist.

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to consider retroactive application of Miller v. Alabama, a crucially important case about justice for youth in America. Although the 2012 Miller decision made mandatory life without parole sentences for minors unconstitutional (in violation of the eighth amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment), the court has yet to rule on retroactively applying the decision.

Granting certoriari for this case (lawyer-speak for agreeing to hear it) is a huge step forward for the thousands of people who were given mandatory life without parole sentences as children, and who are incarcerated in states that have refused to retroactively apply the law. The plaintiff in the current case, Henry Montgomery, has been in prison since 1963, when he was seventeen years old. The law that imposed the mandatory life without parole sentence for Mr. Montgomery has been invalidated by the Miller decision, but Louisiana has thus far resisted reconsidering pre-2012 mandatory sentences.

Life without parole sentences for children are applied with frightening frequency. In 2013, roughly 2,500 people were serving life without parole sentences that they were given as minors. This is a population we don’t trust with drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or voting. Yet somehow we’re prepared to give up on them completely as a society? Here’s a gem from the Miller opinion, written by Justice Kagan:

Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features–among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him–and from which he cannot usually extricate himself–no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the … extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores … his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys. And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.

Should this ruling in Miller be applied to those sentenced before 2012? From a moral standpoint, of course it should (none of Kagan’s points magically sprang into being in 2012). The legal argument will hinge on whether the new rule is substantive (those are retroactive) or procedural (those aren’t). Basically, Montgomery’s team is arguing that since Miller applies to the type of punishment that can be applied to a class of people, it’s substantive. Louisiana will argue that the change was procedural – in Louisiana specifically, the procedural change was a new hearing where minors can present evidence to reduce their sentence – and therefore should not be retroactive. The substantive nature of Miller strongly speaks to the substantive nature of Montgomery’s claim as well – how can a finding of cruel and unusual punishment be categorized as “procedural”?  

So – good for the Court for granting cert on the retroactivity issue. And shame on Louisiana (and Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) for requiring Supreme Court intervention. Best wishes to Mr. Montgomery and his team for another step toward thoughtful, humane criminal justice.

Photographs of young people sentenced to life without parole (all taken within a year of conviction). Courtesy of Human Rights Watch, available here: http://www.hrw.org/news/2009/10/02/state-distribution-juvenile-offenders-serving-juvenile-life-without-parole

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Life until death: The numbers

1 in 11: The proportion of the U.S. prison population currently serving life sentences.

141,000: The number of people serving life sentences in the U.S.

29: The average number of years served by people sentenced to life in prison. This is up from 21 years in the 1990’s.

1 in 3: The number of people with life sentences who have life without parole.

2,000: The number of people serving life sentences in Mississippi. Also the number of people serving life sentences in Germany. (Mississippi’s total state population is about 2% of Germany’s total population.)

2,500: The number of people serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.

43,000: The number of people in California serving sentences as a result of “3 strikes and you’re out” legislation.

$19 billion: The amount of money California spends each year incarcerating 3 strikes prisoners, half of whom are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

Life without parole is often gestured to as a humane alternative to the death penalty. But since life without parole has been increasingly used as a sentence, few potential capital punishment convictions have been “reduced” to life without parole. Instead, people who would never have received a death sentence receive more and longer life sentences. A lot of noise is made about the 3,300 people on death row in the U.S. Perhaps some noise should also be made about the 141,000 who have received the “other death sentence.”

Check out Marie Gottschalk’s excellent article on this topic for the Prison Legal News.

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