Supreme Court of the United States
2016 WL 280758
25 January 2016
8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment)
Montgomery was aged 17 in 1963 when he killed a deputy sheriff. The jury returned a verdict of “guilty without capital punishment”, which under the law of Louisiana required an automatic sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In 2012, the US Supreme Court held in the case of Miller that mandatory life sentences without parole violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment when imposed on juvenile offenders. Louisiana’s courts refused to apply this decision to Montgomery’s case. He asked the US Supreme Court to rule that their Miller decision applied retroactively to prior cases, such as his.
Issue and resolution:
Inhuman sentencing – life imprisonment. The Court held that its previous ruling that mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional for juvenile offenders applies retroactively to any offenders currently serving such sentences and ordered that they be considered for parole.
The Court noted that while new procedural rules do not apply retroactively to convictions which were final when the rule was announced, courts must give retroactive effect to new substantive rules of constitutional law. The question to be determined then was whether the Miller decision set a new substantive rule. The majority of judges determined that “rules prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offence” should be considered substantive. The Miller decision determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption”, thereby rendering life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for ‘a class of defendants because of their status’ – that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth. Therefore, Miller must be considered to set a new substantive rule of constitutional law and apply retroactively.
The Court held that it is necessary to allow children who have been sentenced to mandatory life without parole to be considered for parole in order to ensure that juvenile offenders whose crime was not elevated to the level of ‘irreparable corruption’ are not forced to serve disproportionate sentences for crimes reflecting their immaturity. Although the Court ordered that the offenders concerned are considered for parole, it did not determine that resentencing is necessary.
Dissenting opinions Scalia, J (joined by Thomas, J. and Alito, J.)
Justice Scalia argued that the Court did not have jurisdiction to rule on this case, but even if it did, Miller should not be held to have retroactive effect, because sentences that apply the law as it exists at the time must be considered final. States must not be required to review punishments which were lawful at the time they were imposed. Thomas, J. Judge Thomas also said that allowing the retroactive application of Miller contradicts the principle of finality of convictions and sentences.
This judgment will directly affect over 1,000 people who have received mandatory life without parole sentences. For more information on the issue of inhuman sentencing of children, including a selection of case law, please see CRIN’s ‘Inhuman sentencing’ campaign.
Link to full judgement: