The Supreme Court of the United States notes that lifetime sentences for juveniles should be used only in "rare" cases.
Prison is generally intended for adults. However, in some circumstances juveniles can be sentenced to serve adult sentences. The American College of Correctional Physicians takes issue with this process. The organization notes that neurodevelopmental science has found that the brain of an adolescent is physically different than an adult. The difference involves the limbic system and the amygdale, the areas that are responsible for the impulsive decision making process and aggression. Essentially, this means magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) supports that the teens are subject to immature decision making; yet many who committed crimes as teens are held to the same criminal punishment standards as their adult peers. A recent Supreme Court case addressed this issue.
In Montgomery v. Louisiana , the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) held that sentencing a child to life without parole was excessive "for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption." This holding was, essentially, an extension of a previous SCOTUS ruling. In Miller v. Alabama, SCOTUS held that a mandatory life without parole sentence for juvenile homicide offenders was a violation of the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. This case applied to Montgomery’s situation. In 1963, Montgomery was convicted of murdering a police officer. This conviction carried an automatic life without parole sentence. He was 17 years old at the time of the crime.
Based on the Miller holding, Montgomery sought relief, arguing that due to the holding in Miller his sentence was illegal. His motion was denied by both the trial court and the Louisiana Supreme Court. SCOTUS, however, disagreed. Ultimately, Justice Anthony Kennedy notes that "prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored."
Impact of this holding
The holding does not completely foreclose the use of life prison sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. It does, however, clearly state that the use of these sentences should be rare. As with all SCOTUS holdings, this ruling is applicable throughout the country.
The discussion of this case also brings attention to the serious sentences that can be applied to juvenile crimes. As a result, juveniles that are charged with a crime are wise to take the charges seriously. Defenses are available that can help ensure the accused’s rights are protected. Even those who have been wrongfully convicted can find justice through the appeals process. Contact an experienced criminal appellate practice group to discuss your options and help better ensure your rights are protected.