Thousands of people sentenced to life in prison without parole for homicide offenses as juveniles will now have a shot at freedom. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a 2012 decision by the court that banned such sentences for juveniles should be applied retroactively to anyone who was automatically sentenced to life without parole before that year. People sentenced in states that did not apply the 2012 ruling retroactively must now be considered for parole.
“This decision is a really important one and provides the final word to ensure that these young people are given a second chance,” Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, told TakePart.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion in the 6–3 decision, noted, “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.” In five juvenile justice cases over the last decade, the court has consistently said developmental differences between children and adults should be reflected in their punishment.
Cases citing this difference have often relied on neurological research that indicates the human brain changes and continues to develop well into adulthood. In particular, the prefrontal cortex, which handles impulse control, attention, and working memory, is not fully developed until a person’s early 20s.
Monday’s decision establishes again that “children who come into contact with the law can’t be treated as adults, and have a unique capacity for rehabilitation,” said Lavy. She noted that the trend of recognizing the developmental differences between adults and children in the criminal justice context has also extended to state legislatures. Since the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, which found mandatory life without parole sentences for kids unconstitutional, the number of states banning the practice entirely has tripled.
The case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, was brought on behalf of Henry Montgomery, who was sentenced to mandatory life without parole in 1963 at the age of 17 after being convicted of killing a deputy sheriff. He is now 69.
While some states decided to retroactively apply the ruling in Miller, Louisiana did not. The state has the highest per capita number of people sentenced to life without parole as juveniles, according to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.