Louisiana Must Give Children Sentenced to Die in Prison a Chance at Release, Rules SCOTUS

On Monday morning, ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court granted a chance for review, release, and safe reentry to 301 men and women in Louisiana who were sentenced as children to die in prison.

“This is a hugely important decision recognizing the capacity of every child to grow and change,” said Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights (LCCR) Executive Director Joshua Perry.  “Now, the state of Louisiana must respond in way that is safe, smart, cost-effective, and fair.  All of the 301 men and women who are now serving juvenile life without parole sentences need a real opportunity to show that they’ve earned a chance at coming home safely.”

In 2012’s Miller v. Alabama decision, the United States Supreme Court banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children, but did not decide whether the decision would apply retroactively to those who had already been sentenced.  Louisiana’s Supreme Court was one of the few state supreme courts that denied retroactive relief after Miller, even as political and religious leaders across the country – including Pope Francis – called for the end of juvenile life without parole.

Louisiana has the nation’s highest per capita number of people who were sentenced to serve life sentences without the possibility of parole for acts allegedly committed before they turned 18.  All of those people were sentenced under a mandatory sentencing scheme that did not allow judges to consider their age, life circumstances, role in the crime, or potential for change.

The decision in Montgomery means that, for those 301 men and women, the date of their conviction will not be the difference between second chances and certain death in prison.

Now, Louisiana has a choice to make.  One option is to offer every one of these men and women a resentencing hearing in front of a trial court.  Those will be costly, lengthy, substantive hearings.  The Louisiana Public Defender Board estimates that such hearings will cost upwards of $3,000,000 in the first year for defense counsel alone.  Montgomery repeatedly stresses that, because of children’s unique capacity for chance and diminished culpability, only in very “rare” circumstances should such a hearing end with a sentence of life without parole.

But, as the Montgomery decision itself observes, Louisiana has another, more cost-effective option: “A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.”  In other words, Louisiana could simply follow many of its sister states in declaring that all children serving life sentences will be parole eligible after serving significant term of years, without any need for a costly resentencing hearing.

As Perry observed: “Granting parole eligibility to all children serving life sentences would save money by eliminating the need for costly, drawn-out resentencing hearings for men and women who have been in prison for decades and more.  It will keep communities safe by ensuring that nobody is released without review.  And it will be fairer for victims, because it will mean that they do not have to go through the difficulties of a new court hearing.”

The Montgomery decision explains the virtues of making all juveniles parole eligible: “Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions.  Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences.  The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

Montgomery was brought on behalf of Henry Montgomery, who is serving a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for a crime he committed at age 17.  He is now 69 years old and has spent more than 50 years in prison.  The Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights strongly supported Mr. Montgomery’s position, joining with others to file a brief with the Supreme Court pointing to the examples of Louisiana children who were sentenced to die in prison as a result of acts stemming from adolescent immaturity, and who had demonstrated significant positive growth and change while in prison.

Lawyers, youth advocates, and anyone affected by the Montgomery decision should contact LCCR Special Counsel Jill Pasquarella with any questions or for more information.