Hundreds of inmates in U.S. prisons who were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole can now challenge those punishments, the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday.
In a 6-3 ruling, the court extended a 2012 decision prohibiting anyone under the age of 18 from being sentenced to life without parole by making it retroactive for all such offenders who were given life sentences in the past.
Monday’s case was brought by Henry Montgomery, who in 1963 shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the age of 17.
His lawyers said Montgomery fired in panic when the officer confronted him while playing hooky from school. But the court in his trial was barred by law from considering arguments that his age should matter.
Montgomery is now 69 and says his rehabilitation in prison should make him eligible for parole. The Louisiana Supreme Court disagreed, and his challenge made it to the nation’s highest judicial body.
«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,» Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
More than 2,300 prisoners across the U.S. are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes some of them committed decades ago when they were teenagers, according to a report by the nonprofit law firm, Phillips Black.
Such mandatory sentences are now banned for juveniles, but this is the first time the prohibition will be applied retroactively.
«No one should have to serve an unconstitutional life sentence,» said University of California Irvine Law Professor Edwin Chemerinsky. «[The ruling] is exactly as it should be.»
Just five U.S. jurisdictions are responsible for a quarter of all the juvenile life-without-parole sentences nationwide, the report said.
The leader is Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with nine percent of all juvenile lifers. Others are Los Angeles, California; Orleans Parish, Louisiana (which includes the city of New Orleans); Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago); and St. Louis, Missouri. Michigan also has a very large population of juvenile lifers.
«Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment,» Kennedy wrote.
He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s liberal bloc.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction to decide the case. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito also dissented.
Monday’s decision reverses the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling and sends the case back to the lower courts.