No Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles (We’re Looking at You, Pennsylvania)

An issue that we first wrote about back in June of 2012 has reappeared in the news recently.  In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that its decision in Miller v. Alabama, which outlawed mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders, has retroactive effect.  What does this mean?  Simply put, it means that all juvenile lifers are now entitled to a new sentencing hearing.  The outcome may still be a life sentence, but it’s not a foregone conclusion; a parole sentence is possible.

The slightly more complicated explanation is that whenever the U.S. Supreme Court decides a case by issuing a new pronouncement of constitutional law, that new facet of the law may not apply to cases that already have been fully litigated.  The Court conducts a separate analysis to determine if the newly announced right applies to all cases where the right has ever been at issue or only to cases that are currently active in the court system.  The retroactivity issue is never before the court when the new pronouncement is made, so the Court usually accepts a second case to decide that issue.  Of course, the second case has to work its way through the lower courts, which takes a considerable amount of time.

In the case of Miller v. Alabama, the state courts split on the retroactivity issue.  Of all the states that had adopted mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders, only seven held that Miller wasn’t retroactive, meaning that only those juveniles whose cases were still being litigated were entitled to new sentencing hearings.  Pennsylvania was one of those seven states thanks to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Cunningham.  The Montgomery decision was the U.S. Supreme Court’s way of announcing to Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and the other five states, that they were wrong.

Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act requires prisoners who may benefit from Montgomery to act quickly.  A petition for relief must be filed within 60 days; any petitions filed after March 25, 2016, may be procedurally barred and the opportunity to be paroled will have been lost.

 

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