New Life for Juvenile Lifers

How a U.S. Supreme Court decision could affect Giselle Gutierrez-Ruiz and more than 40 others in Colorado serving mandatory life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. 

January 25 2016, 1:34 PM

—Photo by Morgan Rachel Levy

Forty-eight Colorado inmates serving mandatory life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles could now be granted re-sentencing hearings following a U.S. Supreme Court decision released early this morning. Among those 48 inmates is Giselle Gutierrez-Ruiz, whose case 5280 recently investigated in “Still Life.” Gutierrez-Ruiz’s defense attorney Ashley Ratliff said she was pleased with the decision. “The U.S. Supreme Court has again affirmed that children have a substantive constitutional right to be sentenced in a way that gives them a meaningful opportunity for release,” Ratliff said. “For the Colorado youth locked away needlessly with very long sentences, and for their families, this opinion provides assurances that things will soon change.”

Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case Miller v. Alabama that sentencing a juvenile to mandatory life without parole violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In the following months and years, the question became whether that decision should apply retroactively. The country’s highest court ended that debate this morning. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, argued that “Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders announced a new substantive rule that, under the Constitution, is retroactive in cases on state collateral review.”

Seven months ago, the Colorado Supreme Court took the opposite stance, ruling that the Miller decision should not apply retroactively. At the time, the Centennial State became one of seven to view the Miller decision that way. Twelve states and the U.S. Department of Justice have already taken the position that Miller applies retroactively.

Last year, before the release of the state Supreme Court opinion, state representative Daniel Kagan attempted to introduce legislation that would have given each of the 48 inmates re-sentencing hearings, but he eventually pulled the bill for lack of support. “I am pleased the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that 48 juveniles in Colorado were subject to an unacceptably cruel and unusual sentencing regime, even if it happened many years ago,” Kagan said today. “Their level of participation in their crimes was never considered, nor were their individual characters or backgrounds ever inquired about. We just gave them all the same sentence of life without parole. As the Supreme Court has now made clear, that was wrong, regardless of when it occurred, and now it will be corrected.”

Exactly what the next step will be for each of the 48 juvenile lifers in Colorado is unclear at the moment. Kennedy’s opinion suggests that states could offer parole as an alternative to new hearings. What Kennedy made clear is that inmates serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles should be given another chance at review: “In light of what this Court has said ... prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”