the area of juvenile justice, the week has been pivotal in protecting
the rights and humanity of young prisoners, with an important ruling
from the U.S. Supreme Court on life sentences, and a decision from the
Obama administration on solitary confinement.
a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a previous decision it
made to ban automatic life sentences without parole will be
retroactive, which means that 2,100 prisoners convicted of murders as
juveniles have the possibility of parole, as NPR reports. The
case involved Henry Montgomery, 69, a Black man who was sentenced to
life without parole in 1963 — at the age of 17 — for the murder of a
police officer outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Montgomery has
been behind bars for over half a century.
In 2012 in Miller v. Alabama, the
nation’s high court found that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life
in prison without the possibility of parole constitutes cruel and
unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the
Constitution. The court also said that a “judge or jury must have
the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing
the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.” Although that
ruling obviously applied to all future cases, the issue of past cases
had been unresolved. This week, the court ruled that its decision
should apply retroactively. Writing the majority opinion, Justice
Anthony Kennedy said the following:
Montgomery has spent each day of the past 46 years knowing he was
condemned to die in prison. Perhaps it can be established that, due to
exceptional circumstances, this fate was a just and proportionate
punishment for the crime he committed as a 17-year-old boy. In light of
what this Court has said in Roper, Graham,
and Miller about how children are constitutionally different
from adults in their level of culpability, however, prisoners like
Montgomery 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.
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, wrote a dissenting opinion:
wonderful. Federal and (like it or not) state judges are henceforth to
resolve the knotty “legal” question: whether a 17-year-old who murdered
an innocent sheriff ’s deputy half a century ago was at the time of his
trial “incorrigible.”… What silliness.
Justice Thomas issued his own dissent, arguing that the decision by the
majority of the court “lack[s] any constitutional foundation,” and
“lacks any logical stopping point.” He seems to care more about
deciding on a case rather than whether it was decided justly and fairly:
decision repudiates established principles of finality. It finds no
support in the Constitution’s text, and cannot be reconciled with our
Nation’s tradition of considering the availability of postconviction
remedies a matter about which the Constitution has nothing to say. I
The decision has broad implications for youth of color, as the sentence of juvenile life without parole, or JLWOP, is reserved mostly for Black youth.
In 2008, Human Rights Watch said that 60 percent of prisoners serving
JLWOP are Black, almost all male. And while Black juveniles are
17 percent of youth nationwide, they are 30 percent of those arrested
and 62 percent of those tried as adults, according to Real Clear
Policy. Moreover, JLWOP is an exclusively American form of
punishment found in no other nation on Earth, and it is repudiated by
international human rights law.
the Supreme Court decision comes as President Obama announced an end to
solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison, affecting some
10,000 prisoners. In an op-ed in theWashington Post, the
president made his case for ending the practice. Obama mentioned
the case of Kalief Browder, a Black teen who in 2010 was arrested at
age 16 and spent nearly two years in solitary confinement in New York
City’s Rikers Island jail. He was released in 2013 without ever
going to trial and committed suicide two years later at age 22.
Obama noted that for Kalief, “life was a constant struggle to recover
from the trauma of being locked up alone for 23 hours a day.”
confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s,
and the rationale for its use has varied over time. Today, it’s
increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking
results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address
this problem,” he added.
also noted there are as many as 100,000 prisoners held in solitary in
the U.S., including juveniles and those with mental illnesses.
And as many as 25,000 are serving months or years under these
conditions, with no human contact, leading to “devastating, lasting
psychological consequences” such as depression, alienation, withdrawal,
violent behavior, a worsening of mental illness and an inability to
interact with other people.
in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and
people with mental illnesses,” the president noted.
that solitary confinement should be limited and used only as a last
resort, President Obama has made this decision as part of a broader
move on criminal justice reform and addressing mass incarceration.
This commentary was originally published by AtlantaBlackStar