Parole Rights for Juveniles Sentenced to Life Without Parole Expanded

Can you imagine spending the rest of your life in jail for a crime you committed as a child. Typically, minors are treated differently in the court system compared to adults. Usually, minors are prosecuted in juvenile court.

However, state law allows for serious felonies, such as murder, to be tried as adults and prosecuted in a traditional criminal court proceeding. These cases have proven to be troublesome; particularly, the cases that involve minors being sentenced to life in prison without parole. Under the eyes of the law, minors are viewed as less culpable and more likely to change; therefore, many believe minors deserve more protection under the law than adults do.

In the case Click v. State of Alabama, which arose out of Madison County, Alabama, Jimmy Click (“Click”), at the age of 17, committed a capital murder. Click was convicted in 1994 and was sentenced to the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court released Miller v. Alabama, which stated that the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders. Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455(2012).

Miller requires that a sentencer follow a certain process for juvenile capital murder offenders due to the offender’s youth. Specifically, the sentencer must consider the minor’s upbringing, maturity level, and potential to reoffend when determining the severity of the sentence.

In December 2012, Click filed a Rule 32 petition asserting in the light of Miller that his mandatory life sentence without parole was unconstitutional. The trial court dismissed the petition. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed, based on precedent, stating that Miller does not apply to cases on collateral review.

Following the release of the Miller decision, an issue arose regarding if the decision applied retroactively to cases. The Miller decision failed to mention whether it would only apply to prospective cases or if it would apply retroactively.

To explain further, the Miller decision would not only apply to current and prospective cases but also would apply to cases in which a final judgment has already been rendered. Typically, if a decision is deemed to be procedural then the decision does not apply retroactively to cases. On the other hand, if the decision is deemed to be substantive then the decision will apply retroactively cases.

While Click was pending, the United States Supreme Court released its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana holding that Miller was a “substantive rule of constitutional law” and should be applied retroactively. Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). Following the release of the United States Supreme Court’s decision, Click petitioned the Supreme Court for writ of certiorari review, and the case was remanded to the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Alabama Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s holding. The Alabama Supreme Court held in the view of the Miller and Montgomery holdings that the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on a juvenile convicted of capital murder without considering the “diminished capability and heightened capacity for change before condemning him or her to die in prison” constitutes as such a significant change in Alabama Law that it is retroactively applicable. Therefore, the dismissal of Click’s Rule 32 motion by the trial court on the basis that Miller does not apply retroactively was an error.

The impact of Miller and Montgomery decisions will be vast. Now, many juvenile offenders that have received a life imprisonment without parole sentence will have the opportunity to be reconsidered for parole. Individuals who were minors when the crime was committed will now be able to bring before the court mitigating components that may allow their sentences to be lowered.

If you are facing a criminal charge, contact criminal attorney Joseph A. Ingram at (205) 236-3997.

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