The courtroom battle to save  young people from a life of imprisonment has for years been fought almost exclusively by public defenders. On Tuesday, a public defender will again battle on behalf of juveniles handed down mandatory life sentences, arguing before the United States Supreme Court in another case that could prove a landmark in juvenile justice reform.   

Public defender Mark Plaisance is the District Defender in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. His client, Henry Montgomery, is an old man. Now  69, he has been in prison three times longer than he lived as a free person. In 1963 – 52 years ago, when he was 17 – he began serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.  Mr. Montgomery is one of nearly 300 juvenile lifers in Louisiana.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory life without parole sentence on someone who was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. Since the decision, 16 states have changed their sentencing statutes/parole eligibility requirements to comply with this landmark ruling, 12 states have implemented retroactive review of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole and nine others have abolished juvenile life without parole entirely.  Louisiana and Pennsylvania, however, have bucked these policy trends and have yet to comply with Miller. In fact, one-third of the country’s juvenile lifers are in prison in these two states.

Mr. Montgomery and his public defender are asking the Supreme Court to require that Louisiana review his unconstitutional sentence, and extend this right to every other prisoner who was unconstitutionally sentenced to mandatory life without parole as a juvenile.

There are currently more than 2,500 prisoners – sentenced as children, like Mr. Montgomery was – serving life sentences in America. Like most criminal justice statistics, race and class play powerful roles in sentencing juveniles to life without parole. African-American youth receive this sentence 10 times more frequently than white youth, and almost all juveniles given life sentences are poor.

 “Homicide cases are always tragic,” says Brad Bridge, appellate attorney with the Philadelphia Defender’s Association. “ A person was killed and society wants someone to blame.  When that someone is a juvenile, however, the situation becomes tragic in a different way. Children can learn from their mistakes.  They can grow and change.  When a life sentence without parole is imposed, we are saying to that child that it doesn’t matter if you learn, grow or change: you are never going to get out of prison.  I’ve been a public defender in Philadelphia for over 30 years and I’ve seen this situation first hand.  Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any other state – more than 500.  Around 300 of those juvenile lifers are from Philadelphia.  It is appalling that our state has given up hope on so many of its children.  Under the law, their sentences are unquestionably unconstitutional and justice demands that we do something to fix that travesty.“  

Public defenders are criminal justice experts, working every day in America’s courts, jails and communities.  On behalf of their individual clients and systemic justice policies, public defenders fight to restore fairness to a broken system.  This work is not easy. Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that contributes no state funding to public defense. It has no state oversight body and has no published defender standards. Louisiana – which underwent public defense reform in 2008 – has an oversight body and standards, but nearly a third of its districts are facing insolvency and service restriction due to wholly inadequate funding mechanisms. 

For public defenders, the fight for justice is an unrelenting effort. Next week, before the highest court in the country, a public defender will fight to ensure that his client – convicted 52 years ago – wins the right to have his unconstitutional sentence reviewed. Miller afforded that client this right. A public defender is now working to see that the high court’s ruling becomes the law in Louisiana and those other states that have yet to recognize this important step forward in juvenile justice.