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Juveniles Serving Life Sentences?

April 13, 2016 | Posted In Juvenile Law |

A criminal sentence is life-changing and some people spend the rest of their days paying for one transgression. When sentencing juveniles for crimes, there’s a fine line between matching the punishment to fit the crime and ensuring that the defendants have the chance to grow and reform after learning the intended lesson.

For many crimes, such as petty theft, burglary, fighting, drug use or sales, and misdemeanor offenses, a young perpetrator could benefit greatly from being forced into a rehabilitation program or serving community service -- which can ultimately lead to him or her being granted a second chance to do better.

There are cases where several hours of community service and volunteer work won’t make up for the crimes committed and a mandatory course at a rehabilitation facility isn’t enough to fully punish an addiction-fueled criminal act. Juvenile defendants have been sentenced to years behind bars and sometimes even life in prison for crimes that are more severe in nature, especially if the juveniles are tried as adults. Depending on the crime committed and the judge’s determination with respect to the penalty, life in prison at the age of 16 or 18 is a very real possibility.

However, a ruling issued by the Supreme Court in 2012 is currently in question as to its retroactive application and may change the way courts handle serious juvenile crimes -- even those that would ordinarily result in a life sentence. In the case of Miller v. Alabama, a divided United States Supreme Court found that the Eighth Amendment makes it unconstitutional to issue a mandatory life sentence without parole for juvenile offenders.

For serious crimes, such as attempted or actual homicide, a life sentence without parole is now no longer a given for a young convict, and the possibility of parole or a shortened sentence is still open. But the application of this ruling to existing sentences has been trickier to navigate.

Henry Montgomery and the Louisiana Supreme Court

In 1963 at the age of 17, Henry Montgomery killed a Louisiana deputy sheriff. He was originally given the death penalty but at a retrial in 1970, he was issued a mandatory life sentence with no possibility for parole. Montgomery, now 69 years old, filed for release from prison based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, even though his sentence was issued before this decision. In 2014, Louisiana denied Montgomery’s petition and the U.S. Supreme Court took the case.

Earlier this year, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court addressed the question of whether the ruling in Miller could, and should, be applied retroactively to juvenile life sentences issued prior to the 2012 decision.

The opinion from Justice Anthony Kennedy recalled previous rulings in which juveniles were found to be different than adults in their intellect and emotions, and should be treated differently when it comes to levels of culpability. Montgomery and other young defendants should be given “the opportunity to demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition — that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

Life in prison with no parole options is a bleak sentence for anyone, but especially for a young person who still has a long way to go in terms of growth and maturation. Rulings like Montgomery and Miller may allow juvenile offenders to serve their time and still have the chance to change. For more information on these cases and how they may affect your child’s situation, contact the New Jersey juvenile defense attorneys at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA.

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