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SCOTUS: Ban on automatic life terms for juveniles applies retroactively

In 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States permanently altered the legal landscape with its decision in Alabama v. Miller. Here, in a 5-4 decision, the justices effectively barred the practice of judges handing down automatic life sentences with no possibility of parole for juvenile offenders charged with murder.

The decision, which was lauded by many criminal justice advocates, held that judges considering prison sentences for these types of offenders must consider "mitigating qualities of youth," such as their inability to comprehend the severity of actions and immaturity. 

While the high court stopped short of banning life sentences with the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, it did say such sentences should only be handed down for especially depraved crimes. Furthermore, it did not address the issue of whether the decision must be applied retroactively to the more than 1,000 people currently behind bars for murders they committed as teenagers.

Interestingly enough, SCOTUS addressed this very issue earlier this week in Montgomery v. Louisiana, ruling 6-3 that Miller's prohibition against automatic life sentences should indeed be applied retroactively.

The case in question involved a man who has been behind bars in Louisiana since the early 1960s for fatally killing a sheriff's deputy in Baton Rouge when he was only 17-years-old.

"[P]risoners 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," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion.

Kennedy went on to declare that the decision did not necessarily mean that the states had to resentence those offenders who fit this criteria, but rather that they could offer them parole hearings with no guarantee of release. He also reiterated the position that while life sentences with the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders remains an option, it should be used sparingly.

While 18 states had already elected to apply the ruling in Miller retroactively, at least seven states had declined to do so, meaning they will now have to change their approach.

It will be fascinating to see how this decision plays out across the country.      

If your child has been accused of any type of criminal offense, please consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible to learn more about your options for protecting their rights and their future. 

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