In a 6-3 vote, the conservatives on the Supreme Court gutted protections against sentencing kids to die in prison.
The court ruled on Thursday that a judge does not need to find that a person under 18 who commits murder is “permanently incorrigible” before sentencing them to life in prison without parole. In other words, the court approved life without parole sentences for juveniles even if the facts of the case indicate the crime was a result of youthful immaturity and impulsiveness that the individual is likely to outgrow.
The decision in Jones v. Mississippi is a huge setback to the movement to end juvenile life without parole, a punishment that only exists in the U.S. and is banned in half the states in the country. The decision also contradicts Supreme Court precedent that restricted the use of the extreme punishment for kids.
In a 2012 case called Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment — although it left in place discretionary life without parole sentences. In Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, the court made the ban on mandatory life without parole sentences retroactive. It also clarified that even discretionary life without parole sentences for kids were unconstitutional except for “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”
Those two landmark decisions relied heavily on research conducted by social scientists and neuroscientists who found that brain development continues into an individual’s 20s. That explains why adolescents, whose brains are not fully developed, often behave impulsively, are influenced by peer pressure, and tend to prioritize short-term reward without weighing long-term consequences. The researchers found that the vast majority of adolescents who commit crimes — even murder — do not go on to commit crimes as adults.
The court’s few remaining liberals strongly criticized the ruling in their dissent. “Today, the Court distorts Miller and Montgomery beyond recognition,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
“Time and again, this Court has recognized that ‘children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,’” Sotomayor continued. “Juvenile offenders ‘cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders’ for several reasons. First, ‘as any parent knows,’ and as scientific and sociological studies have confirmed, juveniles are less mature and responsible than adults, which ‘often result[s] in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.’”
‘A Good Kid’
The Miller and Montgomery decisions prompted a wave of people facing life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as kids to argue in court that their sentences were unconstitutional and seek resentencing under the new standards. One of those people was Brett Jones, who in 2005 received a mandatory sentence of life without parole for killing his grandfather when he was 15.
After the Miller decision, Mississippi’s state Supreme Court granted Jones a new hearing, where the court was instructed to take into account Jones’ young age at the time of the crime when determining the new sentence. Like many juveniles who commit violent crime, Jones had a traumatic childhood. His lawyers presented evidence that, as a kid, Jones was physically and verbally abused. A corrections officer testified about Jones’ rehabilitation while in prison, describing him as remorseful for his crime, hardworking and a “good kid” who got along with everybody. Jones also testified about how, with professional help, he had learned to manage mental health conditions he had struggled with as a child. Even Jones’ grandmother called for his release.
But the court resentenced Jones to life in prison without parole. “The court did not find that Brett was permanently incorrigible, nor did it acknowledge that only permanently incorrigible juvenile homicide offenders may be sentenced to life without parole,” Jones’ lawyers wrote in a request for review from the Supreme Court. “In fact, it did not address Brett’s capacity for rehabilitation at all.”
“The issue is nationally important: Without a requirement to find permanent incorrigibility before imposing life without parole, the command of Miller and Montgomery to restrict the sentence to rare, permanently incorrigible juveniles loses its force as a rule of law,” Jones’ lawyers continued.
Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh claimed that the Miller and Montgomery decisions did not require a court to make a decision about whether a juvenile is rehabilitatable in order to sentence them to life without parole. “Montgomery then flatly stated ‘Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement’ and that ‘a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility … is not required,’” Kavanaugh wrote.
But Kavanaugh’s argument, pieced together through selective phrases from court precedents, is undermined in his own footnotes. The full paragraph he cites from the Montgomery decision makes clear that the court interpreted life without parole as a cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles whose crimes reflect a temporary state of immaturity (bolded to indicate the phrases Kavanaugh pieced together out of context):
“Louisiana suggests that Miller cannot have made a constitutional distinction between children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity and those whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption because Miller did not require trial courts to make a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility. That this finding is not required, however, speaks only to the degree of procedure Miller mandated in order to implement its substantive guarantee. When a new substantive rule of constitutional law is established, this Court is careful to limit the scope of any attendant procedural requirement to avoid intruding more than necessary upon the States’ sovereign administration of their criminal justice systems. See Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 399, 416–417 (1986) (“[W]e leave to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences”). Fidelity to this important principle of federalism, however, should not be construed to demean the substantive character of the federal right at issue. That Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement does not leave States free to sentence a child whose crime reflects transient immaturity to life without parole. To the contrary, Miller established that this punishment is disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment.”
Even one of Kavanaugh’s conservative allies on the court appeared to recognize the “strained reading” of court precedent required to reach Kavanaugh’s conclusion. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas admitted that the majority had undermined Montgomery — but said that decision was an error that should be rejected.
The Thursday ruling does not address whether Jones’ life without parole sentence is constitutional — but it does make it harder for other people facing extreme sentences for crimes they committed in their youth to get relief, particularly those who live in states that have juvenile life without parole on the books. The extreme punishment of youth is a problem that disproportionately impacts Black and brown kids, Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, noting that 70% of all juvenile life without parole sentences are to people of color. Even as the number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole has decreased, the racial disparity has increased, Sotomayor noted.
“The Court is fooling no one,” Sotomayor wrote. “Because I cannot countenance the Court’s abandonment of Miller and Montgomery, I dissent.”