Supreme Court again opens door for juvenile murder defendants

Native women and their supporters rallied at the U.S. Supreme Court on December 7, 2015, as the justices heard Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a tribal jurisdiction case. Photo by Indianz.Com

Juvenile homicide defendants who were sentenced to life in prison must be given a chance to argue for parole, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

By a 6-3 vote, the justices confirmed that their 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama was retroactive. In that case, the court determined that mandatory life sentences for juvenile homicide offenders were unconstitutional.

The state of Louisiana, however, refuse to allow Henry Montgomery to seek parole for a murder that he committed at the age of 17 in 1963. The majority said the Miller decision applies to prior cases in all states.

“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,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.

The decision came as President Barack Obama banned the placement of juvenile offenders in solitary confinement in federal prisons. He also said low-level infractions by adult offenders should not result in restrictive housing.

"The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance," Obama wrote in The Washington Post. "Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society."

Obama said he was acting on recommendations from the Department of Justice regarding restrictive housing. A report issued this month said American Indian inmates were more than likely to be placed in special housing units (SHU, special management units (SMU) and in administrative maximum security (ADX) than any other racial or ethnic group.

According to the report, Indian inmates represent 1.94 percent of the federal prison population as of November 2015. Yet they were 3.27 percent of the SHU population, 5.52 percent of the SMU population and 3.71 percent of the ADX population.

The report did not differentiate between Indian adults and Indian juveniles. But it suggested that Indian juveniles are overrepresented in the 12 facilities that house young federal offenders.

"Seven of these facilities are 'secure' (meaning that the facilities include direct supervision of inmates and no unsupervised access to the community), and five are non-secure, community-based facilities," the report stated. "The majority of these facilities are located in the Western United States, given that many of the juveniles in federal custody committed their crimes in Indian country in the western half of the United States."

Get the Story:
Justices extend bar on automatic life terms for teenagers (AP 1/25)
Supreme Court: Life sentences on juveniles open for later reviews (The Washington Post 1/25)
Justices Expand Parole Rights for Juveniles Sentenced to Life for Murder (The New York Times 1/26)
Obama bans solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons (The Washington Post 1/26)
Obama Bans Solitary Confinement of Juveniles in Federal Prisons (The New York Times 1/26)

An Opinion:
Barack Obama: Why we must rethink solitary confinement (The Washington Post 1/25)

Supreme Court Decision:
Montgomery v. Louisiana (January 25, 2015)

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