Georgia inmates once awaiting death in prison for offenses committed in their youths have reason to hope. The Supreme Court of Georgia announced this month in Veal v. State that those inmates—who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for crimes they committed as children—have a right to challenge their sentences anew. The opinion, Veal, explains that an LWOP sentence cannot be legally imposed on juveniles whose crimes “reflect transient immaturity.” Rather, LWOP is permissible only “for ‘those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.’” Anyone facing LWOP for juvenile crimes is entitled to a hearing to determine whether that sentence is even permissible. A juvenile LWOP sentence imposed without such a hearing is void. And in Georgia, an inmate serving a void sentence may challenge it any time.

Veal relies for its reasoning on Montgomery v. Louisiana, which the Supreme Court of the United States issued earlier this term. In Montgomery, the Court clarified that Miller v. Alabama’s prohibition on LWOP for all but the rarest of child offenders was a substantive rule of constitutional law, which state and federal courts had to apply retroactively.

“The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller and Montgomery set the perfect stage for Veal in Georgia,” said Emily Keller, Supervising Attorney at Juvenile Law Center.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that youth are much more amenable to rehabilitation and should not be treated as harshly as adults. Life without parole for anyone younger than 18 years of age should be a very rare sentence—reserved only for those proven to be irretrievably broken. The Montgomery and Veal decisions now provide hope for those youth previously sentenced to die in prison and the real work is just beginning.
Miller, Montgomery, and now Veal, are, of course, just the latest opinions recognizing that children are special under the Eight Amendment: A sentence that would be wholly appropriate for an adult offender may be unconscionable if forced upon a child.
Long D. Vo, the Georgia public defender who represented Veal, put it this way:

I am glad that the courts are starting to realize that children are different and should be treated differently. Arbitrarily giving a child life without parole gives them no hope or reason to change. The presumption should always be against imposing life without parole on a child.