On Monday this week, the US Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v Louisiana that people currently serving life sentences for offences they committed as juveniles must either be considered for parole or re-sentenced.
In 2012, the Court had held that a mandatory life sentence without parole (LWOP) was unconstitutional for those under the age of 18 (in Miller v Alabama), but did it not decide whether this ruling should be applied retrospectively. Some states, including Louisiana, had refused to apply the judgment to those already behind bars.
The case that delivered this week’s ruling was that of Henry Montgomery, who has been in prison more than 50 years since in 1963 at age 17 he was convicted of killing a sheriff. Mr Montgomery is one of over 1,000 people in the US serving life imprisonment for crimes they committed when under the age of 18 who should now have their sentences of life without parole reviewed or be considered directly for release on parole.
This judgment goes a long way toward abolishing life without parole sentences for children convicted of murder in the United States. It may only be used on a discretionary basis and then only, in the words of the Supreme Court, for ‘the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility’. This means that it will be very hard in the future for a US court ever to impose LWOP on juveniles again.
Even this judgment does not bring the USA quite into line with other countries. Every other country in the world has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits life imprisonment without the possibility of release for all children. It is time for the USA to accede to the Convention and make an absolute commitment never again to imprison a child without giving them a realistic hope of eventual release.
Bryan Stevenson was counsel to Mr Montgomery. He is founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and was a PRI Board Member from 2008- 2016.
Read more coverage
Washington Post: Supreme Court: Life sentences on juveniles open for later reviews
The Intercept: Supreme Court gives new hope to lifers, but will states deliver?
About the author
Dirk van Zyl Smit is Chair of the Board of PRI and Professor of Comparative and International Penal Law at the University of Nottingham. He is currently leading a two-year global study of life sentences. The study, the first of its kind, is examining which crimes attract life sentences, the use of mandatory life sentences, how life sentences are implemented, and the conditions under which prisoners serve them.