Retroactivity and Hope for Juvenile Lifers

Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Photo courtesy of Pixabay


By Amber McGee, Staff Writer

Teenagers and kids alike are impulsive. Their brains have not fully developed, and they are not yet the people of sound character they may grow to become. Decision making is quicker and based on peer pressure. During one’s teenage years, inhibitions are low, and impulsivity is at an all-time high. All things considered, juveniles who commit crimes are, and should be, dealt with a greater degree on leniency in the criminal justice system. One crime committed at that age should not define the course of a young person’s life.

In Miller v. Alabama, the court developed a rule which prohibits the mandatory sentencing of juveniles convicted of murder to life without the possibility of parole.[1] There, the juvenile whose sentencing was challenged was only 14 years old at the time the crime was committed.[2] Condemning a juvenile to a life behind bars for committing an act which they may not have committed if they had reached the next developmental stage violates the Eighth Amendment.[3] The Eighth Amendment “guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.”[4] Under the Eighth Amendment, punishments must be proportionate to the crime committed.

While mandatory life without parole sentences are now unconstitutional, courts may still sentence juveniles with a life without parole sentence.[5] Miller v. Alabama requires that courts now consider how age factors into the crime committed and certain developmental factors.[6] Miller v. Alabama, however, announced that this rule was not retroactive.[7]

Retroactivity makes perfect sense here, but it also opens up the floodgates for resentencing for all of those who have been given life without parole sentences as juveniles. This is a good thing. If courts are not going to give these sentences to juveniles today because they are unreasonably harsh, for those that have been given unreasonably harsh sentences, they deserve some relief — or at the very least, reconsideration.

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court held that the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to decide whether the state supreme court can determine retroactivity of the rule created in Miller v. Alabama.[8] They reversed the state supreme court’s ruling and held that the rule should be retroactive.[9] Now, those who have been doing time for crime committed as juveniles have a second chance.[10] Defense lawyers are celebrating this opportunity to reexamine mandatory sentences.

Many factors come into play when determining one’s sentence for a crime. While uniformity is treasured, in reality, it is hard to achieve. Sentencing is often more situational than uniform. Perhaps these variations based on situational differences is a good thing as well. Recently, psychological theories have been incorporated into making sentencing decisions. Judges are presented with evidence favoring defendants’ ability to be rehabilitated.[11][12] Depending upon the individual, certain types of sentencing may be ineffective and, in turn, harm society and the individual more than they help make society safer.



[1] Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] See Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 102, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976) (“[W]e have held repugnant to the Eighth Amendment punishments which are incompatible with ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.'”)

[12] “[C]hildren have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’ leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. [They] ‘are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,’ including from their family and peers; they have limited ‘contro[l] over their own environment’ and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Ibid. [And] a child’s character is not as ‘well formed’ as an adult’s; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].” Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2464 (2012) (internal citations and quotation marks excluded). Miller also talks about how the court’s decision is “common sense” and based “on what ‘any parent knows’”: that juveniles are psychologically different from adults and the courts should, and do, treat them differently. Id. at 2464.

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