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The Oklahoma Legal Group Blog

Supreme Court Gives Teens Sentenced to Life a Second Chance

Adam Banner - Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Figuring out how to punish juveniles accused of serious crimes has been difficult for the American justice system. Science has proven that brain development is not complete until adulthood, and teens and young adults struggle with impulse control and a full understanding of consequence, cause, and effect until their brains are fully developed. However, the inability to fully understand one's actions and control one's impulses does not completely mitigate violent crime and eliminate a necessity for harsh penalties.

In Oklahoma, courts designate "youthful offender" status as a bridge between juvenile delinquent adjudication and adult sentencing, but some minors--those aged 15, 16, or 17 charged with first degree murder--are considered adults regardless of any other circumstances. At least one Oklahoma attorney has challenged that automatic certification, saying it robbed his client--16-year-old Michael Bever, charged with the killing of five family members--of his due process rights. While the state court upheld the law, a recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court could have a significant impact on the way juveniles are tried and sentenced.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for those who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes. In 2010, the Court decided that minors could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole unless they were convicted of first degree murder. And in 2012, the Court found that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional when applied to minors. 

On Monday, the Court expanded that 2012 decision, saying it must be applied retroactively to some 1,500 inmates who were juveniles when sentenced to life in prison--the majority of whom reside in three states that decided on their own that the high court's ruling was not retroactive.

This week's ruling involves the case of Henry Montgomery, a 69-year-old inmate who was sentenced to life without parole when he was 17 years old after shooting and killing a sheriff's deputy. Montgomery says that he has been rehabilitated during his 52 years in prison and deserves a chance at release. Louisiana state courts rejected his plea for parole eligibility, saying that the 2012 ruling was not retroactive.

In a 6-3 decision, however, the Supreme Court sided with Montgomery, saying that the ability to argue for parole granted in the 2012 ruling must be applied retroactively.

According to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion,"Prisoners . . . 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." The Justice acknowledged that there may be juvenile offenders who "[exhibit] such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified, but notes that these cases are rare, and says that the court's overarching opinion recognizes that children have "diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change."
Dissenting Justices criticized the ruling, saying it was a "devious" way to accomplish the goal of abolishing life without parole for juvenile offenders.

Those who have been sentenced as juveniles to mandatory life without parole are not granted automatic parole under the Court's decision. Rather, they are granted eligibility, meaning they still have to argue and prove their rehabilitation to be granted parole by the state Parole Boards.






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