Henry Montgomery has been incarcerated in Louisiana prisons since he was 17 years old, and today he is 71. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole when he was only a child, for the impulsive shooting of a sheriff's deputy decades ago.
As a result, he has missed a lifetime’s worth of events, learning, and relationships. The United States Supreme Court ruled two years ago in his case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, that it is unconstitutional to impose a life-without-parole sentence on the vast majority of youth — a sentence the United States alone imposes on its children. Still, Montgomery remains incarcerated, and will finally see the parole board just days from now.
Sometimes I picture him waking up one day, and walking back in time to the day he was born.
If he took this walk back, he’d observe the presidencies of Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and 11 others.
He’d pass by September 11, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, and the Montgomery bus boycott.
He wouldn’t quite see World War II — it ended just nine months before he was born.
Once he reached June 1946, he would only have 17 years to live outside prison walls. He wouldn’t know then that a huge mistake he made as a poor African-American teenager in a region beleaguered by racial tensions, before his brain was fully developed and before he could grasp the consequences of his actions, would define the rest of his time on earth.
But it did, and it has. And although Montgomery’s case has become emblematic of the fight to end the brutal practice of sentencing children to life without parole (and to other extreme sentences), Montgomery is not yet free. Prosecutors in Louisiana are fighting his freedom, despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling his sentence unconstitutional, along with such sentences for all youth whose crimes reflect “transient immaturity” rather than “irreparable corruption” — a trait I cannot imagine any child possessing, given where they are developmentally. But it certainly isn’t true of Montgomery, whom I was fortunate to meet last year. He is a soft-spoken, gentle man who has tried to make the most of his time in prison by coaching boxing, silk-screening, and serving as a mentor.
While Montgomery and his supporters look forward to his hearing Monday, there is a sea change afoot, just about everywhere but Louisiana, where prosecutors are seeking to reimpose life-without-parole sentences on approximately one-third of those given relief by Montgomery. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, hundreds of individuals like Henry Montgomery have come home over the past two years because of the court’s ruling and over a thousand have been resentenced to lesser terms. States across the nation are abandoning life without parole at a remarkable rate. And the sky has not fallen.
Few of us make decisions today like we did when we were 15, 16, or 17. Our brains, not just our bodies, matured. A growing number of courts, legislatures, prosecutors, and parole boards understand this. And still, Montgomery — a gentle man, guilty of a crime for which he deserved to be held accountable in ways which reflected his age and life experiences — sits in prison.
The clock is ticking.
The time is now to ensure that the state of Louisiana gives Montgomery the opportunity he deserves to live outside prison walls for the first time in 55 years.
It is common sense. It is moral. And it’s long overdue.
Jody Kent Lavy is the executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.