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Mandatory LWOP Sentences Unconstitutional for All Juvenile Offenders

In Miller v. Alabama, decided in 2012, the United States Supreme Court determined that mandatory life imprisonment without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Therefore, LWOP sentences cannot be imposed automatically on juveniles for any crime. Under the new Michigan law, before a juvenile can be sentenced to LWOP, a specialized hearing must take place that specifically considers the value of the offender's youth and his potential for rehabilitation.

The Miller decision clearly invalidated sentencing systems that automatically imposed LWOP sentences upon juvenile offenders. However, the Supreme Court did not address whether the Miller ruling applied retroactively to juvenile offenders who had already been sentenced to LWOP. This term, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Louisiana v. Montgomery to decide that issue.

Henry Montgomery was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole after killing Charles Hurt, a deputy sheriff, at the age of 17. Montgomery is now 69 years old, and has spent 52 years in prison. He has had and will have no opportunity for parole under his current sentence. The 2012 Miller decision raised the question of whether the unconstitutionality of automatic LWOP sentences should apply retroactively.

A Supreme Court decision is retroactive only if the decision rendered represents a change in the substantive law or a "watershed rule of criminal procedure." Such a watershed rule has, to date, never been created. Prior to this week's release of the Montgomery decision, lower courts reached varied conclusions, with some calling Miller a retroactive substantive rule and others calling it a non-retroactive procedural rule.

In Montgomery, the Court decided that Miller announced a substantive rule, and is therefore retroactive. Miller was not a procedural rule that changed only how we sentence juvenile offenders, but a substantive rule that eliminated LWOP for all but "the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption." From this perspective, the Miller ruling was more akin to previous retroactive Court holdings eliminating a punishment from a class of people, such as Roper and Atkins, which exempted juveniles and the severely mentally handicapped from the death penalty.

Following its decision that Miller does apply retroactively, the Court also determined what remedy would alleviate the harm suffered by defendants like Montgomery who were sentenced to automatic LWOP sentences as juveniles. The Court held that these cases will not have to be relitigated; instead, the state only has to offer these defendants parole consideration. This solution means that offenders who have since matured will not "be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment." It also means that those offenders who cannot demonstrate a development in maturity will continue to be imprisoned.

Moving forward, Michigan juveniles who were automatically sentenced to LWOP will receive a parole hearing after a certain term of years has been served in order to determine whether they have earned their release. Uncertainty still exists in juvenile sentencing in Michigan, however. A recent Court of Appeals decision, Skinner, mandates that the jury, not the judge, must make the consideration of youth mandated by Miller before a juvenile is sentenced to LWOP. Skinner applies to cases currently on direct appeal and all future cases; it is unclear if Skinner will be applied retroactively to juveniles who were already sentenced to LWOP by a judge instead of a jury.

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