The Supreme Court last year outlawed mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles but didn’t specify whether that applied retroactively or only to future cases. Courts have ruled different ways; the Minnesota Supreme Court and the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta have said the Miller v. Alabama case shouldn’t reach backward in time. The Wall Street Journal says there is “deep confusion among inmates, their lawyers, lawmakers and sentencing-policy advocates.”
Many of the 2,100 people sentenced as juveniles to mandatory life-without-parole sentences before June 2012 are being held in legal limbo, with few answers in sight. “The situation is an absolute mess,” said Wendell Sheffield, a defense lawyer in Birmingham, Al., who represents a juvenile being held on capital murder charges. “We got an opinion from the highest court in the land, but nobody knows how to implement it.” Courts have divided over a technical question of constitutional law: whether the rule in Justice Elena Kagan’s opinion is “substantive,” and thus should apply retroactively, or “procedural,” which would alter the method of sentencing going forward.