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The Supreme Court's good news for juveniles sentenced to life

The Supreme Court's good news for juveniles sentenced to life
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in this week's decision on juveniles sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Los Angeles Times)

Following the advice of juvenile-justice advocates (and a Los Angeles Times editorial), the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 this week in favor of  Henry Montgomery, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing a Baton Rouge deputy sheriff in 1963, when Montgomery was 17.  Monday's decision offers a chance of freedom for as many as many as 2,500 prisoners in a similar position.

The precise legal issue in the case was whether the court would make retroactive its 2012 decision in Miller vs. Alabama striking down mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile murderers. Under Supreme Court precedent, "procedural" decisions apply only prospectively, while "substantive" or "watershed" decisions apply retroactively.

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The decision was significant to constitutional-law buffs because it cut through some complicated objections to retroactivity in this case based on differences between state and federal court jurisdiction. (In dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia complained of the majority's "astonishing" conscription of state courts into federal service.)

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But non-lawyers will likely regard it as simple justice that Montgomery and others in his position benefit from the court's evolving understanding that "children are constitu­tionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing" -- because they are less mature and more impulsive and also because they are better candidates for rehabilitation.

It isn't just courts that have recognized that, because of different brain chemistry, adolescent killers are less culpable than adults. In California, where some 300 prisoners are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before they turned 18, a law signed by Gov. Brown in 2012 allows such prisoners to submit a petition for "recall and resentencing" to a court.

One can welcome this trend without adopting the naïve view that adolescent killers bear no responsibility for their crimes because "my brain made me do it." Obviously most adolescents don't commit violent crimes, and those who do must pay some price. Diminished capacity for practical or moral reflection doesn't mean no capacity at all.

Also, some murderers who committed their crimes when they were young continue to pose a danger to society decades later, and judges and parole boards can take that into account. But as Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion:

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"Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller's central intuition — that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change."

If that's true of juveniles who receive mandatory life sentences now, it's equally true of those who were given no hope of freedom before the Supreme Court saw the light.

As Kennedy put it in the poignant closing of his opinion:

"Henry Montgomery has spent each day of the past 46 years knowing he was condemned to die in prison. Perhaps it can be established that, due to exceptional circumstances, this fate was a just and proportionate punishment for the crime he committed as a 17-year-old boy. [But] 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."

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3

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