By Danielle Wolffe—The Nation—June 21, 2017—
Decades later, a Supreme Court ruling could give them their freedom.
When Machelle Pearson learned last July that her life sentence would be vacated, she sent home a sepia-toned Polaroid of her late mother that she’d kept in a Bible during her 33 years of incarceration. But then her hopes of release were dashed. Pearson, like many of the roughly 2,500 people sentenced as teenagers to a mandatory sentence of life without parole, has been on a legal roller coaster ever since the Supreme Court ruled in a pair of decisions that juvenile lifers must be provided with a reasonable opportunity for release. Miller v. Alabama (2012) established that indiscriminately sentencing people under 18 to die in prison is unconstitutional. Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) requires the Millerdecision to be applied retroactively. These decisions establish that resentencing must take into account the fact that juveniles are inherently less culpable than adults due to brain-development patterns and their potential to be rehabilitated. In these cases, advocates successfully proved that teenagers sentenced to life in prison weren’t the irredeemable “superpredators” that they were made out to be in the 1980s and ’90s, when most of these individuals were sentenced—and that they didn’t deserve to die in prison. Nineteen states have eliminated mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles entirely. Hundreds of people have been resentenced to lesser terms since Miller, many since Montgomery. But most, like Pearson, have been in a kind of legislative limbo this past year, unsure of their rights. While the Supreme Court decisions have been hailed as victories of criminal-justice reform, some states are dragging their heels when it comes to giving juvenile lifers their day in court. These 2,500 adult men and women remain uncertain whether they’ll die in prison or be offered a second chance.