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By Kimberly Robinson
Jan. 25 — Hundreds of prisoners serving mandatory life without parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were juveniles may get new sentencing hearings after a Jan. 25 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court's 2012 decision banning mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders applies retroactively, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the 6-3 majority.
A sharply divided court prohibited the mandatory sentences in Miller v. Alabama, 80 U.S.L.W. 4560, 2012 BL 157303 (U.S. June 25, 2012).
Although the exact number of prisoners serving such sentences is not known, Tamar R. Birckhead of the University of North Carolina School of Law, Chapel Hill, N.C., told Bloomberg BNA in a Jan. 25 e-mail that about 1,000 prisoners—principally in Louisiana, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Michigan—could benefit from the court's retroactivity ruling.
Under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), “a new constitutional rule of criminal procedure does not apply, as a general matter, to convictions that were final when the new rule was announced,” the court said here.
The majority said, however, that Teague recognized two exceptions, including that “courts must give retroactive effect to new substantive rules of constitutional law.”
The court here distinguished between substantive and procedural rules, explaining that “a procedural rule ‘regulate[s] only the manner of determining the defendant's culpability,' ” whereas a substantive rule “forbids ‘criminal punishment of certain primary conduct' or prohibits ‘a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.' ”
The court acknowledged that “Miller‘s holding has a procedural component. Miller requires a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender's youth and attendant characteristics before determining that life without parole is a proportionate sentence.”
But Miller “did more than require a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender's youth before imposing life without parole; it established that the penological justifications for life without parole collapse in light of ‘the distinctive attributes of youth,' ” the court said.
“Because Miller determined that sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but ‘ “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption,” ‘ ” it “rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for ‘a class of defendants because of their status’—that is, juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.”
That question—Miller‘s retroactivity—had divided state courts.
Twelve states had determined that Miller was retroactive, while five—including Louisiana—held that it was not, Mark D. Plaisance of Thibodaux, La., who argued for the prisoner Henry Montgomery, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 25.
Plaisance said that neither Miller nor the court's Montgomery decision mean that a state can never sentence a juvenile offender to life without parole. It just means they have to take into account the mitigating factors associated with their age, he said.
“Children are different,” Plaisance said, pointing to their maturity level, ability to be rehabilitated and other factors.
Because of that, life without parole—what he called the second most severe sentence imposed by the legal system—must be reserved for the “worst of the worst” juvenile offenders, Plaisance said.
Birckhead, who heads UNC Law's Youth Justice Clinic, said about 2,000 prisoners were sentenced to mandatory life without parole before Miller was decided.
About “half of those have already had their cases reviewed in some fashion by states that have held that Miller is retroactive,” she said.
Therefore, she estimated that “approximately 1,000 people remain, with the majority from the states that found Miller did not apply retroactively or have not yet decided the issue.”
The court acknowledged that resentencing these prisoners could be difficult, given that many have been imprisoned for decades.
To avoid that difficulty, states could instead make those prisoners parole eligible, the court suggested.
Plaisance said that would be a preferable remedy to resentencing, not only because of the evidentiary difficulties, but also because it could provide faster relief.
He noted that in this case, Montgomery committed the crime when he was 17. At 69, he “has spent almost his entire life in prison,” the court said.
But before the court could reach the merits of the retroactivity question, it first had to clear a jurisdictional hurdle that it interjected.
When the court agreed to hear the case, it asked the parties to address an additional question: Did the court even have jurisdiction to review the state supreme court's decision?
The issue was whether state courts had to apply Teague‘s retroactivity rules, or whether they could apply their own rules.
State courts are constitutionally compelled to apply Teague, the court concluded.
When “a new substantive rule of constitutional law controls the outcome of a case, the [U.S.] Constitution requires state collateral review courts to give retroactive effect to that rule,” the court said.
That determination has potentially broad implications.
There is always a Teague issue after the Supreme Court announces a new substantive rule, Richard D. Bernstein of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, Washington, who was appointed by the court to argue against jurisdiction, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 25.
However, Bernstein said that doesn't happen that often. The Roberts court is relatively conservative in criminal matters, he said, estimating that it hands down a new substantive rule every couple of terms or so.
Still, Plaisance said that when a new substantive rule is announced, the state courts have to give it the same effect federal courts would. There can't be a patchwork of retroactivity, he said.
He pointed out that if Henry Montgomery had been convicted and sentenced just a few miles down the road in Mississippi, as opposed to Louisiana, he would have been able to benefit from that court's determination that Miller was retroactive. Instead, he was convicted and sentenced in Louisiana, which went the other way.
Dissenting, Justice Antonin Scalia said it wasn't any of the court's “business that a 69-year-old Louisiana prisoner's state-law motion to be resentenced according to Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. ___ (2012), a case announced almost half a century after his sentence was final, was met with a firm rejection on state-law grounds by the Louisiana Supreme Court.”
He called the majority's decision requiring states to adopt Teague the “conscription into federal service of state postconviction courts” and said it was “nothing short of astonishing.”
University of Kansas Law professor Stephen R. McAllister agreed.
The former Kansas Solicitor General told Bloomberg BNA in a Jan. 25 e-mail that “Teague retroactivity is not and should not be a constitutional rule but, rather, an aspect of the federal habeas statute.”
McAllister disagrees “with commanding state courts to release defendants potentially years after conviction and sentence in state post-conviction proceedings.” State courts will be viewed as responsible for those releases, when it is really federal law that is the reason, he said.
“That should be the job of the federal courts in federal habeas proceedings,” he said.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Kennedy's decision.
Scalia and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.
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