Steven Keefe was only 17 when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At the time of his sentencing, he was too young to vote, buy cigarettes, or join the military. Yet, under our broken criminal justice system he was old enough to be put into prison for the rest of his life.
Steven has spent the last 33 years in prison and is now seeking the chance to reenter society. We are representing him in front of the Montana Supreme Court. We believe that he should have a chance to prove that he has changed over the last three decades. We believe that he should have a chance to not die in prison. But, this case is not only about Steven. It is also about ending the cruelest sentence a judge can hand down to a child: Life in prison without the possibility of parole.
We have long known that the brains of children are not as developed as those of adults. In fact, the human brain continues to develop and mature well into a person’s twenties. As a result, children and young adults have limited ability to perceive and appreciate the consequences of their actions. And, when it comes to rehabilitation, they are far more responsive to efforts to modify and rehabilitate negative behaviors.
The U.S. Supreme Court agrees. In the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two cases—Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana—that placed substantial limitations on a judge’s ability to impose a life without parole sentence on children. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized that new scientific understandings of how children’s brains develop make it cruel and unusual to punish them without any consideration for how their youth may have influenced their offense. Additionally, the Court cautioned that only the extremely rare child who shows no hope of rehabilitation can be sentenced to life without parole.
Miller and Montgomery are just the latest in an evolution of U.S. Supreme Court cases that have placed limitations on unduly harsh sentencing schemes for juveniles based on our ever-increasing understanding of the juvenile brain and how that impacts what we consider morally acceptable punishments for child offenders.
Following signals from the U.S. Supreme Court about their reformed approach to juvenile sentencing, there has been a substantial nationwide movement to eliminate juvenile life without parole sentences. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have recognized the harms of juvenile life without parole sentencing and have completely abandoned the practice. Five more states have severely limited the circumstances in which a life without parole sentence can be imposed on a child. Several others have offered people currently serving life without parole sentences for an offense committed when they were a child the opportunity to be resentenced or have automatically granted them parole eligibility.
Despite the well-known harms, Montana still has not banned juvenile life without parole.
This choice by the majority of states to move away from life without parole sentences for juveniles is a recognition of the cruel and unusual nature of sentencing children to spend the rest of their lives in prison. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court found that sentencing a child to life in prison is akin to sentencing them to death. While a child sentenced to life in prison will not die by the State’s hand directly, they will forfeit the rest of their lives to the State, living without any freedom of movement, choice, or ownership of any aspect of their existence. Given the similarities between the two sentences, that one is an unacceptable punishment for children should automatically mean the other is also unacceptable.
Our modern standards of decency no longer consider it tolerable to impose sentences of life without parole on children.
Montana should resentence Steven in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. His resentencing is an opportunity for Montana to join the majority of states that have already stopped this form of cruel and unusual punishment. Montana should no longer permit our children to die in prison.