New Hampshire Holds No Mandatory Life Sentences for Juvenile Offenders

On Friday, in a major victory for the movement to seek justice for juvenile offenders, the New Hampshire Supreme Court held that the State cannot enforce a law that requires a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for juvenile offenders under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes. Petition of the State of N.H., __ N.H. __ (N.H. Aug. 29, 2014).

The Miller v. Alabama Decision

A landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court, Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), first held that states cannot mandate life without parole for offenders under the age of 18, but instead must conduct an individualized sentencing hearing. The Court stated that, when sentencing juvenile offenders convicted of homicide, sentencers must “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

Kids are Not Short Adults

The Court also reminded us of some of the ways that children are different, reasoning that "the distinctive attributes of youth —such as immaturity, impetuosity, inability to appreciate risks, and vulnerability to family and home environment — diminish the penalogical justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.”

Dream Team Challenges NH's Law

Some of the best appellate attorneys, criminal defense attorneys and civil rights attorneys in this State including: the State's Appellate Defender, Chris Johnson; Amy Messer, the 2014 winner of the NH Bar Foundation's Kenison Award, — and including the 2009 winner of that Award, our very own Richard Guerriero — then brought challenges to the life-without-parole sentences that had been mandated for several teenage defendants who had committed homicides before they reached the age of 18. They had to overcome a difficult hurdle: these teenagers' convictions had become final before the Miller decision in 2012, and most types of new legal decisions do not apply "retroactively" to cases from the past that have become final convictions.

Victory on Appeal

These New Hampshire attorneys had won a victory for their clients in the NH Superior Court, a declaration that Miller v. Alabama did apply retroactively and that the federal constitution mandated new sentencing hearings for these defendants. The State, however, tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, appealing that decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Fortunately for the clients of these lawyers, and more broadly for the cause of juvenile justice across the State and across the country, the Court ruled that the Miller decision did announce a "new substantive rule of law that applies retroactively to cases on collateral review." Thus, the Court's decision will result in new, individualized sentencing hearings - and a chance for hope - for these young defendants and others ensnared in the criminal justice system before their 18th birthday.