What Happens If Sentences Are Ruled Unconstitutional?

The fascinating thing about law is that it’s always changing. Whether legislators make new ones or the judiciary describes or invalidates present ones, which was valid yesterday might not be legal tomorrow. This is certainly true in the domain of criminal procedure and criminal justice, where prosecutors, law enforcement, defense lawyers, and civil rights activists all battle over exactly what justice and public safety seem like.

Sentences Are Ruled Unconstitutional

However, what happens when the law changes? Does it also alter for individuals convicted before the new law took effect? For example, of attention to the U.S. population residing in prison, what happens when paragraphs are ruled unconstitutional?

A good example of this scenario is the dilemma of juvenile Legislation , even though it also includes respect to drug offenses and the death penalty. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to death was unconstitutional. In 2010, the Court stated juveniles could only be sentenced to life without parole in rather extreme circumstances. And in 2012, they decided that compulsory life sentences with no possibility of parole were unconstitutional. So, what then for every one of the adults still working out time whose sentences would be considered unconstitutional if applied to a person convicted now?


The solution is, it depends. Oftentimes nothing happens. When the court declares a rule, they don’t always say whether that rule is retroactive or not. And when they do consider it, they frequently decide against retroactivity, leaving the countries to decide whether to employ it to cases decided before the shift. In the case of juvenile sentencing, the Supreme Court originally left it up to the states, but in 2016 they chose that their earlier judgment banning compulsory life sentences for juveniles must be implemented retroactively.

The Mercy Rule

Some assert that when a kind of sentence is ruled unconstitutional, those formerly sentenced under that rule should be given a lighter sentence. This is known as the mercy doctrine. Other people argue that this would be too administratively laborious and that it goes against the principle of finality, an important facet of the justice system.

To that, winner philosophy proponents contend that if a sentence is ruled unconstitutional now, someone who received the same sentence a decade ago shouldn’t be forced to serve it. As Amanda Solter, a mercy doctrine researcher, explains,”The concept that it is administratively challenging or logistically difficult sounds like such a cop out when you are speaking about people’s lives.”

Even without the mercy doctrine, there are options for appealing someone’s sentence. Contact an attorney to discuss your choices if you know of somebody whose sentence ought to be reconsidered.