Attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice called yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on life sentences for those who committed crimes as teens “potentially sweeping” but warned that resentencing hearings were far from a sure path to freedom, reports the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. The court ruled, 6 to 3, in Montgomery v. Louisiana that prisoners serving mandatory life sentences without parole for murders they committed as juveniles should have a chance at release via a resentencing hearing. Though parole boards will now have to review the sentences, they won’t have to give parole, said retired law professor Victor Streib, an expert on the juvenile death penalty and juvenile justice. “And it would be very typical for them not to.” The ruling means that the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, which said that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional on Eighth Amendment grounds, should apply retroactively.
The Washington Post reports that the ruling will affect an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 cases. More than 1,100 inmates are in three states — Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Michigan — where officials had decided the 2012 ruling was not retroactive. Another attorney who has represented inmates sentenced to death called the decision “potentially sweeping.” However, John Mills of Phillips Black, a nonprofit public interest law firm, cautioned that judges can still hand down life without parole at their own discretion. “That is happening to people in jurisdictions where they've received retroactive relief under state law,” Mills said. “Their prize for having won that victory is a new, discretionary sentence of life without parole. And that kind of sentence will be available unless and until the U.S. Supreme Court holds that life without parole itself is unconstitutional.”