In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional where the individual was under the age of 18 at the time of the offense. The Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller struck down mandatory sentencing laws in more than a dozen states, and many states agreed to grant prisoners sentenced as juveniles a new hearing to determine what the appropriate sentence should be. Maryland, however, is one of several states that has argued since 2012 that Miller does not apply retroactively. In support of this position, Maryland has refused to pass legislation that would provide a meaningful parole opportunity for individuals who were effectively sentenced to die in prison when they were only children.
Today, however, the U.S. Supreme Court made it harder for Maryland to continue to hold this draconian and unjust position. In a 6-3 decision, the Court has ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that its 2012 decision in Miller applies retroactively. Finally, individuals in Maryland who were denied as youth the opportunity to prove they can change may finally get that chance.
Adolescent brain science has shown us that youth under the age of 18 make decisions differently, respond to impulses differently, and assess rewards and risks differently from adults. This means that an effective justice response must hold youth accountable in ways that are appropriate to their age and stage of development. It also means that still-developing youth are more likely to respond to treatment and other interventions designed to help them change their behavior and become contributing members of their communities while they are still young. Life sentences without the possibility of parole ignore this science to the detriment of not only the youth but also our commitment to fairness and public safety.
In the coming months, OSI-Baltimore will explore adolescent brain science and what it teaches us about how we must transform Maryland’s juvenile and criminal justice systems. In the meantime, we are hopeful that Maryland will heed the Court’s ruling in Montgomery and take appropriate steps to ensure that people sentenced as children to die in Maryland prisons get a second chance.