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Publication Date

Winter 2014

Abstract

This Article proposes a unique framework establishing that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, which forbids states from automatically sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without any meaningful opportunity for release, must apply retroactively to hundreds of juveniles whose convictions and life sentences were already final at the time of the decision. Such a framework is timely and critical. The lower state and federal courts are divided on the question, and the Supreme Court is likely to settle the issue within the next year. The Article reviews how, absent guidance from the Supreme Court, a host of states, led most recently by Michigan, have invoked the Miller majority’s statement that it was merely requiring states to follow a “certain process” before sentencing a juvenile to life imprisonment without parole. By this reasoning, Miller is not retroactive under the Supreme Court’s federal retroactivity doctrine established by Teague v. Lane. The Court has always applied new substantive rules retroactively under Teague, while it has never done so for a new procedural rule. The Article rejects this “process” language as a basis for resolving whether Miller is retroactive. It concludes that Miller in fact has little to do with process and is instead primarily concerned with sentencing outcomes for youth. In striking down mandatory life without parole for juveniles, Miller adapted the individualized sentencing requirement from Woodson v. North Carolina, which invalidated the mandatory death penalty. This individualized sentencing requirement obligates states to always offer juveniles a sentencing outcome carrying the possibility of release and to consider the essential, mitigating fact of youth before imposing an irrevocable life sentence. These obligations are inherently substantive. By contrast, Miller’s alleged procedural component is undefined and collateral to its substantive altering of juvenile sentencing. Miller therefore announces a substantive rule that must apply retroactively.

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