About 1,500 prisoners convicted of murder as juveniles and given mandatory sentences of life without parole may have to wait a bit longer to have their hopes for new sentences decided by the Supreme Court.
A majority of justices on Tuesday appeared to believe that they lacked jurisdiction to decide whether states such as Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and others must apply a ban on such mandatory sentences retroactively to those convicted years or even decades ago.
The problem, the court’s more conservative justices said, is that Louisiana’s refusal to reconsider the sentences of its juvenile murderers — people such as Henry Montgomery, 69, who’s been imprisoned since he was 17 for murdering a sheriff’s deputy in Baton Rouge — is a matter of state law.
And while the high court could tell Louisiana whether its 2012 decision striking down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment must be applied retroactively, the state then could decide the issue on state grounds — rendering a Supreme Court verdict simply advisory.
“What forces them to stay where they were?” Justice Antonin Scalia asked the lawyer representing Montgomery, Mark Plaisance. “It’s a matter of state law. They’ve decided ‘we’re going to change state law.'”
The question of state versus federal jurisdiction appeared likely to sidetrack the case — the second one granted by the court to decide whether the constitutional ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles should be applied to those sentenced in the past. The first case was dismissed when the prisoner, George Toca, pleaded to a lesser charge and was released after three decades in Louisiana’s prison system.
Lawyers for Louisiana and the U.S. Department of Justice agreed with Montgomery’s lawyer that the court had jurisdiction to decide the case.
“This court ought to weigh in,” Kyle Duncan, the state’s lawyer, said. “It’s going to weigh in sooner or later.”
The justices appeared equally skeptical on the merits of the case — specifically, whether its 2012 ruling applying to juveniles convicted of murder in the future was a “substantial” change in the law requiring retroactive application.
Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the earlier 5-4 decision, said that case changed the range of sentences juries could render. While the maximum sentence remains life without parole, she said, juries could hand down more lenient sentences — making it a substantial change.
“When you decide whether a substantive change in that sentence has been made, you look at both: the maximum and the minimum,” Kagan said.
To which Scalia replied: “I would not describe changing the range of sentences available as changing the sentence…. You still get the same sentence.”
And while some justices were sympathetic to Plaisance’s plea that juveniles locked away forever “deserve a chance at redemption,” others appeared to agree with Duncan, who warned that forced retroactivity would drain state resources and lead to “distorted retrials.”
The case is a logical extension of the high court’s juvenile justice jurisprudence. In 2005, it barred the death penalty for those whose crimes were committed before they turned 18. In 2010, it prohibited life without parole for non-homicides. Then in 2012, it blocked all future mandatory life sentences, even for murder.
Since then, it’s been left to state courts or legislatures to decide whether the sentences of those previously locked away for life should be reconsidered. Hundreds of them were imprisoned in the 1980s and ’90s, when the battle against juvenile crime peaked; some date back to the 1950s. Fourteen state supreme courts have said the ruling must be applied retroactively. Seven others, as well as four federal appeals courts, have said it does not.
SOURCE: USA Today – Richard J. Wolf