The Kids Win Again: Working Towards a “Fresh Start” After Montgomery v. Louisiana

February 14, 2016

By Mahogane Reed, Articles Editor


On January 25, 2016, the United States Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana,[1] giving juvenile offenders hope by holding that the Court’s prior ruling in Miller v. Alabama[2] applied retroactively to juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.[3] Although the Montgomery holding is a significant victory for criminal justice reform advocates, there remains much to do before the ultimate goal—giving “juvenile lifers” the opportunity to start fresh as adults—can be realized. The first major step toward implementing Montgomery is legislatively determining the legal avenue through which juvenile offenders will be afforded the opportunity for a fresh start. In the same way the Supreme Court has looked to other states’ juvenile sentencing practices in determining the propriety of a particular form of punishment, Louisiana should look to other states for guidance on how to implement the holding of Montgomery.

I. Setting the Stage: Important United States Supreme Court Precedent

Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has taken incremental steps toward recognizing that juveniles should be given special consideration during the sentencing phase of their trial. Beginning with Roper v. Simmons, where the Court held that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on persons whose offenses occurred before they obtained the age of 18, the Court has emphasized the diminished culpability of minors and their greater prospect for rehabilitation.[1] This ruling marked a significant shift in public sentiment on use of the death penalty on juvenile offenders, as was reflected in the number of states that had up to that point abolished the practice.[2] Later, in Graham v. Florida, the Court took the reasoning from Roper to its next logical conclusion, holding that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses.[3] In so holding, the Court noted that a juvenile offender “who [did] not kill or intend to kill” has a twice-diminished moral culpability—both his age and the nature of the crime militate in favor of a more lenient sentence.[4] Finally, in Miller v. Alabama, the Court held that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide offenders violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.”[5] After Miller, the question remained whether individuals already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles could take advantage of the rule articulated in Miller.[6] This question was addressed in Montgomery v. Louisiana.

II. Where We Are: The Retroactivity Rule

Montgomery is the Court’s most recent holding in its trend away from disproportionate punishment for juvenile offenders.[1] In Montgomery, the Court ultimately held that Miller applied retroactively on collateral review to people whose sentences to life without parole as juveniles were final at the time Miller was announced.[2] Emphasizing the principles established in Roper, Graham, and Miller, the Court began with the basic premise that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.”[3] These differences, the Court stated, are the result of children’s lack of maturity, vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures, and their lack of formation of “adult traits.”[4] Because Miller was a substantive holding based on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,[5] the Court held that any sentences issued under a regime that violated Miller—whether or not the individual’s conviction was final at the time the rule from Miller was announced—was null and void as a matter of constitutional law.[6] On that basis, the Court effectively mandated that some form of relief be made available to “juvenile lifers” whose sentences were final when Miller was handed down.[7] The Court did not go much further than issuing that broad mandate, however, leaving Louisiana with some tough choices to make.

III. Where We’re Going: Implementing Montgomery in Louisiana

After stating its holding that Miller applies retroactively, the Supreme Court noted that Louisiana could remedy a Miller violation in a number of different ways.[1] One possible way would be to relitigate the juveniles’ sentences altogether, taking into account the mitigating circumstances of youth and the prisoner’s transformation during his time in prison.[2] The Court offered another, less burdensome path to compliance with Montgomery: extend to juvenile homicide offenders the opportunity to be considered for parole.[3] Allowing those offenders consideration for parole would ensure that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity would not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and, just as important, it would also be the least burdensome process for the State. The Court noted:

Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions. Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.[4]

The Supreme Court’s dicta on offering parole to juvenile offenders is more than a mere suggestion—it reflects the path other states have taken to effectuate Miller retroactively. Since 2012, 21 states have abandoned the use of juvenile life-without-parole sentences and now provide a mandatory minimum with a chance for parole after a certain number of years.[5] Because the Supreme Court tends to view state trends as persuasive when gauging the national consensus on criminal sentencing practices—particularly juvenile sentencing practices[6]—the Louisiana Legislature would be wise to follow the national trend and offer the opportunity for parole to those who have already served a number of years in prison. This would help to ensure that the State remains up to date when the Court inevitably takes additional steps to lead criminal justice reform.


Because the Montgomery decision only requires that states provide juvenile offenders an opportunity for review of their sentences without mandating a particular procedure for doing so, there is still a lot to be figured out. There are currently 301 men and women who are serving juvenile life-without-parole sentences in Louisiana, and the Louisiana Public Defender Board estimates that conducting sentencing rehearings for all of these people would cost the state at least $3 million.[1] Given this statistic and the budget issues facing the state the Louisiana Public Defender Board, extending the opportunity to be considered for parole to offenders with juvenile life sentences is the most progressive and attractive option for Louisiana.

[1] Louisiana Must Give Children Sentenced to Die in Prison a Chance at Release, Rules SCOTUS, La. Center for Child.’s Rts. (Jan. 25, 2016), [].

[1] Id. at *16.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Joshua Rovner, Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview, Pol’y Brief (The Sentencing Project, D.C.), Oct. 2015, available at [].

[6] See, e.g., Roper v. Simmons, 125 S. Ct. 1183, 1197 (2005) (considering how state legislatures addressed the question of disproportionate sentences for juveniles); see also Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) (inquiring into society’s standards of decency as reflected in legislative enactments to abolish sentencing mentally retarded offenders to death).

[1] For a thorough discussion of the background of Montgomery v. Louisiana, see Allison B. Kingsmill, Lives Hang in Limbo: SCOTUS to Hear Case on Whether Ruling Prohibiting Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles Applies Retroactively, La. L. Rev. Lagniappe (Apr. 13, 2015), [].

[2] Montgomery, 2016 WL 280758, at *15.

[3] Id. (citing Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2458).

[4] Id.

[5] See supra note 1.

[6] Montgomery, 2016 WL 280758, at *15.

[7] This is, of course, in addition to the requirements already imposed on states in Miller itself.

[1] Roper v. Simmons, 125 S. Ct. 1183, 1197 (2005).

[2] Id. at 1191–97 (chronicling the reduced use of the death penalty against juvenile offenders among the 50 states).

[3] Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 2034 (2010).

[4] Id. at 2027.

[5] Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2475.

[6] Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280, 2016 WL 280758, at *2 (U.S. 2016).

[1] Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14-280, 2016 WL 280758 (U.S. 2016).

[2] 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).

[3] Montgomery, 2016 WL 280758, at *15. Perhaps equally important was the Court’s holding that Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), was a substantive, and not procedural, holding and thus fell within one of the exceptions to the principle of non-retroactivity articulated in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989). 2016 WL 280758, at *15. Although that portion of the holding is certainly critical to the finding that Miller should be applied retroactively, a thorough discussion of that portion of the holding is outside the scope of this blog post.