The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without the possibility of parole, according to The Atlantic. One of those children was a boy named Henry Montgomery. In 1963, Montgomery was 17 years old, and was convicted of shooting and killing a plainclothes police officer in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was initially sentenced to death, but the Louisiana Supreme Court decided that racial tensions, including Ku Klux Klan activity in the area, had influenced the jury’s decision. Instead, the court resentenced him to life in prison. There is hope, however, that soon he’ll be coming home.
Montgomery is now a long way removed from the teenager he once was. He is 75 years old. He has been in prison at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, for 57 years.
Sometimes numbers like this exist as abstractions. What does 57 years mean? What are 57 years spent living inside a cage? What they are is a lifetime.
When Montgomery was sent to prison, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act had yet to be signed. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were still alive. Ruby Bridges was 9 years old. Four little girls had just been killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A gallon of gas was 30 cents and a loaf of bread was 20. The Beatles had yet to come to America. “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” by the Beach Boys, was Billboard’s No. 1 song of the year. My own parents, now in their 60s, had yet to begin kindergarten.
Today, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization that works to reduce incarceration in the U.S., more than 53,000 people are serving life-without-parole sentences. The state of Louisiana, where 70 percent of people serving life sentences are Black, has more people serving life sentences per capita than any other state in the country. Until recently that number included thousands of children, but two relatively recent Supreme Court cases, one of which had Henry Montgomery at its center, changed that. More than 50 years after his original sentence, Montgomery became the petitioner in a 2016 case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, in which the Court ruled that its 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama—which banned mandatory life without parole for children—could be applied retroactively. The Miller decision was based on research demonstrating that children’s brains are not as fully developed as adults’. This seems obvious and intuitive, but new neuroscientific evidence made clear that children who commit crimes cannot be held culpable to the same extent as adults, and that they have even more of an opportunity to change.
The decisions affected more than 2,600 people who had been sentenced to life without parole, who could now be resentenced.
But simply because someone has had the opportunity to be resentenced doesn’t mean that they will be released. Miller banned juvenile life without parole as a mandatory sentence, but did not ban it outright. So although 800 people who had been previously sentenced to life without the possibility of parole have been released since the Montgomery ruling, more than 1,700 people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole across the country still remain behind bars. And despite the Supreme Court’s assertion that he is “an example of one kind of evidence that prisoners might use to demonstrate rehabilitation,” the petitioner of the case, Henry Montgomery, has remained in prison as well.
One person who is free because of Montgomery’s case is Andrew Hundley, a co-founder and the executive director of the Louisiana Parole Project. Originally sent to prison at 15 years old, Hundley served nearly 20 years in state prisons across Louisiana until 2016, when he became the first juvenile lifer in Louisiana released from prison following the Montgomery ruling. Since his own release, he has been working to get Montgomery and others out of prison. “I feel like it’s my life’s work,” he told me. He was grateful to have been released, but thought that Montgomery should have been the first one allowed to come home. “Henry was in prison for 18 years before I was born. And I’ve been home five and a half years now.”
Soon, Montgomery could join Hundley and the hundreds of other people who became free because of his 2016 case. Next Wednesday, Montgomery is scheduled to go in front of a three-person parole board that will decide whether he will be released or remain incarcerated. This will not be the first time that Montgomery has gone in front of a parole board. He has been denied parole on two occasions, mostly recently in April 2019. In each case, two of the parole-board members voted in favor of release, and one did not. In Louisiana, at that time, parole decisions had to be unanimous.
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