Three Years After Miller v. Alabama: Uncertainty Remains For the Hundreds of Juvenile Offenders Serving Life Sentences Without Parole

In Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court held that life sentences without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders violated the Eighth Amendment where the sentence fails to consider the defendant’s age and other characteristics related to “youth.” Going forward, it is clear that no juvenile will be subject to an LWOP sentence without consideration of the hallmarks of youth—like immaturity, impetuosity, and the failure to appreciate risks and consequences. The Supreme Court, however, did not discuss what should be done with the hundreds of juvenile offenders originally given LWOP sentences. Because Miller was decided with a post-conviction case, some have argued that the Supreme Court has ruled that Miller applies retroactively. However, and tragically, uncertainty abounds.

Illinois recognized the import of Miller. In 2014, in People v. Davis, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously held that juveniles cannot be given a life sentence unless sentencing includes a process taking into account the child’s age and mental development, and that Mr. Davis and over a hundred of other juvenile offenders in Illinois are entitled to be resentenced.. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review the case and Mr. Davis’ resentencing hearing is currently set for April 13, 2015.

While some states have decided that Miller applies retroactively, others have applied a technical view of the law and refused to reconsider sentences that are now legally unconstitutional.  For example, in Louisiana, a juvenile accidentally shot a friend during an armed robbery back in 1984. The juvenile, George Toca, was only 17 years old at the time but was convicted of second-degree murder and automatically sentenced to LWOP.  After Miller declared that his sentence was unconstitutional, Mr. Toca sought resentencing. Louisiana courts refused his request.  Seeing the problem, the United States Supreme Court granted review in Mr. Toca’s case. In response, the State of Louisiana, afraid of an adverse ruling that would require resentencing for numerous juveniles in the state, made Mr. Toca an offer he couldn’t refuse—a sentence of time served—which would also moot the case and preclude Supreme Court review.  As a consequence, the question of Miller’s retroactivity remains unanswered. Juveniles across the country, facing courts that (unlike Illinois) will not vacate their unconstitutional sentences, have faced a set-back. Many expect the Court will take up the retroactivity question next year. Until then, the thousands of juvenile offenders serving unconstituitonal LWOP sentences in states that have refused to apply Miller retroactively have little hope for leniency.


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