Saturday, February 13, 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court and Juvenile Criminal Justice

The United States Supreme Court continues to recognize the inherent differences between juvenile and adult criminal offenders, acknowledging that the former are less psychologically and socially developed—and thus less legally culpable—than the latter.

At the end of last month, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the matter of Montgomery v. Louisiana, a case with major implications for inmates sentenced as youth to life without the possibility of parole. In a nutshell, the Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery that juveniles who were previously sentenced to life without the possibility of parole should be granted a new sentencing or parole hearing.

In 2012, the Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that it was unconstitutional to automatically sentence a juvenile convicted of homicide to life-without-parole. This decision essentially meant that any individual in prison who had been so sentenced was being held in violation of his constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

This legal predicament left many states wondering what to do about inmates who fit this criteria. Should they have to grant them a new sentencing or parole hearing? Was, in other words, the Miller decision retroactive to old cases or did only apply to new cases moving forward?

The Montgomery case answered just this question: juveniles who had previously been automatically sentenced to life-without-parole must be afforded a new sentencing or parole hearing. However, it does not mean that those inmates will be given a new sentence or granted parole, though that may be a possibility. Rather, Montgomery simply requires a new sentencing or parole hearing.

Since the Miller decision in 2012, California has already taken steps to address how it will address juvenile offenders sentenced to life-without-parole. In 2013, the state legislature passed a bill that permits an inmate so sentenced as a juvenile to a parole review after 15 years and release after 20 years.

This bill, titled “California Fair Sentencing for Youth,” required the state to give a new sentencing hearing to any inmate who was 18 years old or younger at the time they were convicted of a crime and sentenced to life-without-parole.

In light of Miller and last month’s decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the legal landscape of juvenile justice has changed dramatically for those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles.

It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will eventually rule that all life sentences for crimes committed by juveniles are unconstitutional per se.

Katie Walsh is a defense attorney in Orange County, California. Attorney Walsh’s practice focuses on juvenile law, criminal defense, and victim’s rights.

Contact the Law Office of Katie Walsh at 714-619-9355 or online.