January 27, 2016
What should we expect after Montgomery from states that had resisted Miller retroactivity?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this extended and effective Intercept article headlined "Supreme Court Gives New Hope to Juvenile Lifers, But Will States Deliver?". Here are excerpts:
[I]t took three-and-a-half years and much litigation for the Supreme Court to force the states to apply Miller retroactively. Even now, the Montgomery ruling is no guarantee for release. “Today’s decision simply provides an opportunity for review,” Mark Plaisance, the Louisiana attorney who argued the case before the Court last fall, reminded reporters on Monday. The ruling is “just the first step in a long process for Mr. Montgomery.”
At 69, Henry Montgomery does not have the luxury of time. Yet he is among the lucky ones — at least he has representation. For other prisoners, finding a lawyer to challenge their continued incarceration is the first in a daunting series of hurdles. According to [Sister Alison] McCrary, word at Angola is that local attorneys will soon be visiting the prison to instruct “offender counsel substitutes” — jailhouse lawyers — on how to begin filing petitions on behalf of fellow inmates. But juvenile lifers must also wait for the state to decide on the legal venue for such a challenge. Then, ultimately, they must convince the state’s chosen decision-makers that they are worthy of early release.
From state to state, the question of who will make these decisions is still up in the air. After Miller, several states simply abolished juvenile life without parole, restoring parole eligibility or imposing lesser determinate sentences on those already imprisoned. Other states opted for resentencing hearings, putting individual prisoners’ fates in the hands of a judge. For those recalcitrant states that refused to do either, Justice Kennedy sought to provide reassurance in Montgomery that the 6-3 ruling “does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole.” Instead, he suggested, writing for the majority, states can give a chance for such prisoners “to be considered for parole.”
In New Orleans, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights was quick to embrace this suggestion. The state “has a choice to make,” the legal nonprofit explained on its website following Monday’s ruling. It can offer prisoners “costly, lengthy, substantive hearings” to the tune of $3 million to fund the first year of defense attorneys alone, according to an estimate by the Louisiana Public Defender Board. Or it can grant juvenile lifers some shot at release by allowing them to go before a parole board — an option the group’s director argues saves money, preserves public safety (“by ensuring that nobody is released without review”), and is “fairer for victims, because it will mean that they do not have to go through the difficulties of a new court hearing.”...
Still, as in most states, winning parole in Louisiana is exceedingly difficult. Last summer, following a thorough review of the state of parole across the country, the Marshall Project found parole boards nationwide to be secretive, driven by politics, and “vested with almost unlimited discretion to make decisions on almost any basis. Hearsay, rumor and instinct are all fair game.”...
As lawyers and scholars continue to parse the ruling in Montgomery, the broader implications are yet to be seen. For now, although it continues to chip away at the harshest sentences for youth, with Montgomery, the Supreme Court has decided once more to preserve the option of juvenile life without parole, meaning that defendants will continue to be sent to die behind bars for crimes they committed as children. There is good reason to think such sentences will be rare — existing data after Miller shows a large drop in new sentences of life without parole for juvenile crimes across the country. And some legal experts have interpreted Montgomery to mean that a prosecutor pursuing such a punishment will now have to somehow “prove to a judge that a particular youth is beyond saving as a reformed person” — a dubious proposition that should be burdensome in theory.
Yet, it is not hard to imagine that in such cases, the “nature of the crime” will continue to have the final say. After all, even as it seeks to narrow life without parole sentences for youth offenders, Montgomery keeps intact the same assumption that set the stage for them in the first place. “Miller drew a line between children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity and those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption,” Kennedy wrote in Montgomery. It remains possible that a court “might encounter the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.”
It was this image of irredeemably bad youth — applied along starkly racist lines — that created the superpredator myth, fueling the very sentences states are now being forced to reconsider. After all, while it may be easy to accept that, as an old man, Henry Montgomery is not the same person he was in 1963, it is difficult to imagine such sober perspective governing the fate of a 17-year-old who today committed the same crime — the fatal shooting of a police officer. These are the very crimes for which mandatory sentencing was invented — and for which parole will be routinely denied.
It is this enduring idea — that a crime tells us everything we need to know about the person who committed it — that must be overcome, by parole boards, by judges, and by the legions of people who now claim the broader mantle of criminal justice reform. The Supreme Court has taken another important step in recognizing that people in prison can change. It is up to the states to give juvenile lifers a meaningful chance to go home — before prison becomes the only home they know.
Prior related post on Montgomery:
- SCOTUS declares Miller juve LWOP rule retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana
- Do SCOTUS watchers really expect the Justices to take up the basic constitutionality of the death penalty soon?
January 27, 2016 at 10:50 AM | Permalink