Our newest associate Alexander P. Guilmartin, Esq. reflecting on the recent decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana
“Too often, discussion in the legal academy and among practitioners and policymakers concentrates simply on the adjudication of guilt or innocence. Too easily ignored is the question of what comes next.”
So spoke Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy last year, in Davis v. Ayala, in solemn condemnation of long-term solitary confinement. Justice Kennedy wisely cited the physical, mental, and emotional toll that multi-year stays in isolation can have on a prisoner subjected to such abject solitude. In January of this year, President Barack Obama took heed, issuing executive actions limiting the use of solitary confinement in federal prison, reducing the number of inmates eligible and the amount of time they may spend in that status, while outright banning the practice for juveniles.
On the same day that Obama reformed incarceration for approximately 10,000 inmates, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana providing a constitutional right for prisoners sentenced to life without parole before the age of 18 to request their release. Two thousand men and women now have the right to make that request, potentially receiving a future release that will allow them to die, and perhaps even live, outside of prison walls.
These developments in criminal justice are small steps toward reforming the United States justice system, protecting juvenile offenders from some of the most egregious terms of incarceration and recognizing the importance of the system’s treatment of individuals who have been convicted of an offense. While many herald this progress, there remains much work to be done, particularly if it is true that, as Justice Kennedy and Dostoyevsky have both written, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Our society’s job does not end at a verdict.