Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court tackled the issue of lifelong prison sentences for juvenile offenders in Miller v. Alabama, ultimately ruled mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile killers is unconstitutional. This was in addition to previous rulings forbidding death sentences and life sentences without parole for non-homicide offenses committed by youths.
What the court did not address was whether the Miller decision should be applied retroactively to old cases. In the years since, courts across the country have reached conflicting decisions about it. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals has ruled it should not be applied to older cases. However, other state courts, including most recently the Florida Supreme Court, has ruled that it should.
Now, the U.S. Supreme court has ruled it will take on the issue, which could affect approximately 80 prisoners in Alabama.
If it were applied retroactively, it would mean new trials, at least for the sentencing phase, for juveniles serving life in prison without parole for crimes they committed in juveniles.
AL.com reports there are 28 states in which juveniles who were 17 or younger at the time of their alleged crimes required automatic sentences of life without the possibility of parole.
The U.S. Supreme Court has granted a request for certiorari (review) on a case out of Louisiana to determine whether the Miller ruling should be applied to old criminal cases.
Our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers know that mandatory minimum sentencing in general – whether for juveniles or adults, homicide or drug crimes – deprive trial court judges of discretion where it would be prudent and the circumstances warrant.
In the Louisiana case being appealed, defendant is serving a mandatory life sentence for the murder of a deputy sheriff committed when defendant was 17. That was back in 1963. The state courts have all denied his motions for review in accordance with the Miller verdict, but now, the U.S. Supreme Court will take on the issue.
The court could decide directly on the issue of retroactivity, setting a precedent for all courts in the country, or it could decide the final say should be left with the states.
In Alabama, although the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the court's finding in Millerisn't retroactive, that could still change. There is at least one case pending review by the Alabama Supreme Court on this very issue.
Since the ruling was issued in 2012, there have been several dozen incarcerated felons serving life sentences without parole who have requested the state afford them the opportunity to seek parole, considering their youthful age the time of the underlying offense.
Although prosecutors have unsurprisingly argued against retroactive application, their primary argument against such a ruling is that it would require the court to have a re-sentencing for each prisoner, and to hold hearings as to potential mitigating circumstances for each defendant in order to make the final determination. But of course, this is what justice is all about.
The courts have well established that juveniles must be held to a different standard than adults in the criminal justice system. Even when they are tried as adults for serious crimes, the reality is they were not adults at the time of the alleged actions. Therefore, they should not be held to the same adult standards.
A ruling in favor of the Louisiana inmate would not mean the prison doors would suddenly swing open for those affected. Rather, it would afford them the opportunity to make a case for why they should someday be set free.
Miller v. Alabama, June 25, 2012, U.S. Supreme Court