SCOTUS Rules on Miller Retroactivity, Comparing the LA Police Commission and Planned LASD Civilian Oversight


In a 6-3 vote on Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled that the 2012 Miller v. Alabama decision, which established that mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to life-without-parole (without considering mitigating circumstances) was cruel and unusual, should be applied retroactively.

Monday’s ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana has the potential to free juvenile offenders sentenced before the 2012 Miller ruling, who will now have the opportunity to be considered for parole based on whether they show evidence of rehabilitation.

The clarification of Miller v. Alabama (which, by the way, was argued by superstar civil rights attorney and author, Bryan Stevenson) is important because interpretation and application of the retroactivity of the ruling has varied across state lines.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

“Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions,” wrote Justice Kennedy. “Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences. The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

Advocates agree. “People told as children that they would leave prison only in a pine box now will have an opportunity to demonstrate that they have changed and are ready to re-enter society,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “All children possess the capacity for change, and this ruling affirms that when and where a youth committed a crime should not determine whether he or she should die in prison.”

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas joined in a dissenting opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia. (Justice Thomas also wrote his own dissenting opinion.)

Lyle Denniston over at SCOTUSblog has a helpful analysis of Monday’s Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling. Here’s a clip:

In a way, the ruling was technically only about whether the Court would apply retroactively its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, declaring that life without parole should be an “uncommon,” even “rare,” sentence for an individual who was under the age of eighteen at the time of the crime. Making a decision retroactive means that inmates whose convictions have become final can begin anew their challenges, to take advantage of the new decision.

The new decision does make Miller retroactive to cases that were final before the date of that ruling — June 25, 2012. But it also appears to go beyond the actual scope of the Miller ruling, by strengthening the chance that a newly convicted juvenile will be able to show, at the time of sentencing, that he is not beyond rehabilitation to become a law-abiding individual. Life without parole, the Court declared, is always unconstitutional for a juvenile unless he or she is found to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”

For inmates who as youths many years ago were sentenced to life without parole, the ruling gives them a chance to reopen their sentence with an attempt to show that, at that time, they were not beyond rehabilitation — a point that they apparently can try to prove by offering evidence of their good behavior as prisoners in the years since.

Those aspects of the ruling appeared to go beyond what the Court had decided in the Miller case itself, which required judges who sentence defendants under the age of eighteen to take their youth into account, to make sure the punishment was appropriate for each individual. Monday’s dissenting Justices, in fact, complained that the new decision had “distorted” the meaning of the Miller decision and will force sentencing judges to try to figure out “a knotty legal question” — what were the prospects for rehabilitation at the time of sentencing?

The Miller ruling only applied in 2012 to sentences that had not yet become final. That left open the question whether the ruling would apply to cases that had been completed before, perhaps long before, the Miller ruling was issued. That is the fundamental constitutional question the Court has now answered, making its bar on mandatory life-without-parole sentences applicable to already closed cases — in federal trial courts, and also in state trial courts — if the state courts have (and retain, in the future) the authority to hear challenges based on federal law as it applies to sentencing.


The Los Angeles Police Commission, which has a say in who serves as chief of police, has a considerable amount of control over the LAPD, its practices, and policies. While that kind of power won’t be in the hands of the members appointed to a civilian oversight commission for the LA County Sheriff’s Department, the advisory-only civilian commission will still be able to bring about reform by making recommendations and using public opinion, some experts say.

The LA Daily News’ Sarah Favot has more on the differences between the two oversight groups. Here’s a clip:

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently agreed to move forward on an oversight panel for the Sheriff’s Department. But unlike the Los Angeles Police Department’s Police Commission, the panel will be merely advisory.

The Board of Supervisors is set to vote on the proposed ordinance that will govern the commission in the coming weeks.

The main difference between the two oversight bodies will be that the sheriff is an elected official who has the sole responsibility to operate the department, while the police chief is appointed by the mayor, with the approval of the City Council and Police Commission. Under the City Charter, the Police Commission is the head of the LAPD.

The Police Commission sets policies for the department. Although in reality the chief also has a lot of control, and he manages the day-to-day operations of the department.

Attorney Dean Hansell, who chaired the working group formed last year to make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors about the role of the Sheriff’s Department oversight commission, described how the Sheriff’s Department oversight panel would be different from the Police Commission.

“The sheriff is independently elected,” Hansell said. “This commission, much of their powers and tools are really going to have to be power of persuasion and power to muster public opinion.”

Leave a Comment