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Steilman v. Michael: Wide in Scope, Narrow in Effect

Friday, February 2, 2018  
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By Lars Phillips

The Montana Supreme Court’s recent decision in Steilman v. Michael[1] significantly alters the landscape of juvenile sentencing jurisprudence in Montana. While Steilman is only the most recent iteration of a wide-sweeping shift in how our criminal justice system attempts to define cruel and unusual punishment for juvenile defendants, it appears likely that this will prove to be a watershed decision not only because of the structure it puts in place for sentencing juveniles in the future, but also because of the broad swath of circumstances to which the decision applies.

The groundwork for Steilman was first laid in 2005 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roper v. Simmons,[2] where the Court banned death sentences for juvenile defendants and recognized that the characteristics of youth required that children be treated differently than adult offenders. Roper was followed shortly by Graham v. Florida,[3] which prohibited sentencing juveniles to life without parole for non-homicidal crimes, and then by Miller v. Alabama,[4] which prohibited applying mandatory life without parole sentencing guidelines to juvenile defendants. Finally, in Montgomery v. Louisiana,[5] the immediate catalyst for Steilman, the Supreme Court held that the announced Miller rule was retroactive, opening up a new avenue of relief in state courts for a small subset of currently incarcerated defendants.

Notably, Miller and Montgomery challenged sentences issued under mandatory sentencing schemes in Alabama and Louisiana, respectively. In Alabama, for example, the mandatory sentencing scheme required that every juvenile convicted of homicide be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.[6] With this context, the Miller rule requiring specific consideration of the characteristics of youth makes sense as simply another iteration of Roper’s determination that ‘children are different’ and, accordingly, must be sentenced differently.

To that end, it is important that Miller did not categorically ban life without parole sentences for juvenile defendants, it only required that the sentencing judge “follow a certain process — considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics — before imposing a particular penalty.”[7] And, as pointed out by Justice Laurie McKinnon in her dissent to Steilman, Montana’s “individualized and discretionary sentencing scheme already require[s] a sentencing court to consider a defendant’s individual needs, characteristics, family environment, and prospects for rehabilitation—including age.”[8]

Were Miller still the law of the land, distinguishing between the “certain process” described therein and the sentencing procedures currently in place in Montana would require significant legal gymnastics. As impliedly recognized by Steilman, however, Montgomery requires something much more specific than Miller’s vague “certain process.” To that end, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly, albeit impliedly, emphasized this new specificity, recently vacating and remanding five cases where juveniles had been sentenced to life without parole in Arizona to allow the courts to consider the sentences in light of Montgomery.[9] Further, as noted by Justice Samuel Alito, all five Arizona cases were decided after Miller and, if all Montgomery did was declare Miller retroactive, there would be no need to apply Montgomery to cases decided after Miller.[10]

The implication, that Montgomery adds a new requirement that a sentencing court issue a specific finding of irreparable corruption before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole, should be a warning beacon to Montana’s judiciary. The clearest current statement as to what sentencing courts should consider post-Montgomery was delivered by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her concurring opinion to the five Arizona cases, where she framed the required question as “whether the juvenile offender before it is a child whose crimes reflect transient immaturity or is one of those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption for whom a life without parole sentence may be appropriate.”[11] With this background in mind, analyzing Steilman reveals an opinion which is at the same time both broad in its protection of juveniles and limited in providing any hope of legitimate relief to those defendants.

In Steilman, the Court makes mincemeat of the distinction between Montana’s discretionary sentencing scheme and the mandatory sentencing schemes of Alabama and Louisiana under which Miller and Montgomery were decided, concluding that it is the sentence of life without parole itself, rather than the sentencing scheme, which renders the sentence cruel and unusual.[12] Although pressing at the bounds of Montgomery already, the Court continues on to carve out new protections for juveniles in Montana. Rejecting the State’s arguments to the contrary, the Court holds that the underlying rule in Miller and Montgomery applies with equal force to “term-of-years” sentences that result in the functional equivalent of life imprisonment, as it does to sentences of life without parole. This determination shifts Montgomery from a decision aimed solely at juvenile defendants convicted of homicide to a decision affecting any juvenile who receives a significant term-of-years sentence.[13]

The Court strengthens this conclusion by forging a connection between Montgomery and Graham v. Florida, the decision that had categorically forbidden life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes.  The Court emphasized that “Montgomery and Graham illustrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s inexorable evolution recognizing that all but the rarest juvenile offenders be given an opportunity for redemption and a hope of release, which a sentence of life without parole cannot provide,” and that Montgomery “draws a line between children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity and those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.”[14]

In other words, the Court seems to suggest, and logic supports, the idea that determining whether a juvenile’s crime reflects transient immaturity, thereby limiting the amount of time he or she should serve, should not be reserved only for instances in which the juvenile is convicted of homicide, but should apply wherever a lengthy term-of-years sentence is possible. While a question remains as to how long a term-of-years sentence must be to trigger Montgomery’s application in Montana, the conflation of these two lines of cases seems to have created a novel avenue for relief for juveniles in Montana. Specifically, Steilman may allow juveniles who have received lengthy term-of-years sentences in non-homicide cases to challenge their sentences if the sentencing court did not explicitly consider whether the crimes at issue reflected irreparable corruption.

Although the Steilman Court speaks in grand terms of the importance of giving youth the opportunity for rehabilitation, and appears to significantly expand the number of juvenile defendants who may challenge their sentences, the Court stopped shy of granting Steilman the relief he sought. In a twist that seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the opinion, the Court concludes that the Eighth Amendment protections provided by Montgomery, Miller, and Graham are not implicated by Steilman’s sentence.

In reaching this determination, the Court notes that “because Steilman is eligible for day-for-day good time credit, his 110-year sentence allows for his release after serving only 55 years, contingent upon his behavior in prison.”[15] Further, the Court finds that, because Steilman is currently serving an additional, consecutive sentence of 23 years and eight months for an unrelated crime in Washington, “Steilman could potentially serve as little as 31.33 years exclusively attributed towards” the crime at issue in this case. The Court concludes that “Steilman would be hard pressed to argue that [a sentence of 31.33 years] was disproportionate to the horrific crime he committed.”

While the Court’s overarching point, that a functional sentence of 31.33 years does not violate the Graham, Miller, or Montgomery, is appealing, the fact remains that Steilman was sentenced to 110 years without parole in this case. Further, in his dissenting opinion, Justice Wheat highlighted several other jurisdictions where shorter sentences than 55 years had been invalidated under Miller and Montgomery.[16] In that regard, it is difficult to reconcile the Court’s application of the law to Steilman’s sentence with the rest of the opinion, as well as governing federal law. The determination that the length of the sentence pronounced in Steilman’s case is insufficient to trigger the Montgomery analysis because of the additional realities the Court mentions rings hollow. Not because those exterior factors could not be considered by a sentencing court, but because the Court makes that determination without allowing Steilman the opportunity to present the case that the crime at issue reflected transient immaturity as opposed to irreparable corruption. An allowance it deems earlier to be constitutionally required.

Further, an important question remains as to what constitutes proper relief for juvenile defendants that fall within Steilman’s scope.  Both dissenting opinions highlight this issue, but suggest differing approaches. Justice McKinnon argues that a petition should be remanded to the district courts for resentencing, leaving the court free to impose the original sentence. Justice Michael Wheat, joined by Justice Dirk Sandefur, follows the guidance proposed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Montgomery,[17] and suggests that the parole restriction be removed from the sentence, allowing the parole board to consider “Steilman’s youth and attendant characteristics at the time of his crime and his development and behavior during incarceration.”[18]

The question of whether to order a defendant be resentenced or to strike the offending parole restriction is complex and delicate. Procedural matters such as overcrowded dockets and budgetary restrictions combine with questions involving how to reintegrate defendants who have known only the confines of a prison for a majority of their lives to add varying shades of legal and social issues to the mix. As was the case following Congress’s passage of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the best solution here is likely legislative. Until Montana’s legislators act, however, we will likely see various iterations of the questions wrought by Steilman brought to the Montana Supreme Court for review.

In that regard, some of these issues may be before the Court more quickly than expected. District Court Judge Gregory Pinski has ordered that Steven Keefe be resentenced in light of the Court’s decision in Steilman. Keefe was sentenced to three consecutive terms of life imprisonment plus 50 years after being convicted on three counts of deliberate homicide when he was 17.  That proceeding is currently scheduled for March 2018.


[1] 2017 MT 310, __ Mont. __, __ P.3d __.

[2] 125 S. Ct. 1183 (2005).

[3] 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010).

[4] 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012).

[5] 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016).

[6] Id. at 734.

[7] Miller, 132 S. Ct. at 2471.

[8] Steilman, ¶ 34 (McKinnon, J., dissenting).

[9] Tatum v. Arizona, 137 S. Ct. 11 (2016); Arias v. Arizona, 137 S. Ct. 370 (2016); DeShaw v. Arizona, 137 S Ct. 370 (2016); Purcell v. Arizona, 137 S. Ct. 369 (2016); Najar v. Arizona, 137 S. Ct. 369 (2016).

[10] Tatum, 137 S. Ct. at 13 (Alito, J., dissenting).

[11] Tatum, 137 S. Ct. at 13 (Sotomayor, J., concurring) (citations omitted).

[12] Steilman, ¶ 17.

[13] Id. at ¶¶ 2, 20–21.

[14] Steilman, ¶¶ 20–21 (cleaned up).

[15] Steilman, ¶ 22.

[16] Steilman, ¶ 28 (Wheat, Sandefur, JJ., dissenting).

[17] Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 736.

[18] Steilman, ¶ 32 (Wheat, Sandefur, JJ., dissenting). 

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