Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has given hope to potentially thousands of inmates sentenced as children to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).
In its 6-3 ruling in the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, written by Justice Kennedy, the Court states that “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.” Consistent with the Court’s rulings in a series of cases over the past 10 years, children are different in ways that make the mandatory, permanent sentence of life without parole completely inappropriate. Though mandatory sentencing of LWOP was ruled unconstitutional in Miller v. Alabama, states differed widely on applying the ruling retroactively.
The Sentencing Project has been involved in research and advocacy around the extent to which JLWOP sentences have been imposed in the U.S., the only country in the world that allows such a sentence for children. In 2010, we released our findings from a nationwide survey of nearly 1,600 individuals serving these sentences. We found overwhelming evidence that before they victimized others, many of these young people had been victimized themselves in ways that are difficult to imagine. We also found significant racial disparities, extreme poverty, and poor legal counsel associated with the imposition of life sentences for juveniles. Despite these patterns, we also noticed a tremendous amount of change and reform from the inmates themselves over the years, sometimes decades, that they had been in prison.
As depicted in Senior Research Analyst Ashley Nellis’s book, A Return to Justice, mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles rose significantly in the 1990s during the so-called superpredator era, which has now been wholly discredited as fear-based media hype. Had it not been for the mandatory minimum sentences that were popularized during this time, the number of juveniles sentenced to LWOP would have been substantially lower.
We are very encouraged about the continuing momentum toward a more rational approach to responding to the behaviors of young people and we look forward to seeing its full implementation in the states.