Supreme Court to Weigh ‘Incorrigible’ Bar for Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences

By Mark Walsh — March 09, 2020 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to take up a new case about whether the Eighth Amendment requires a trial court to find that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole.

The justices took up the appeal of Brett Jones, who was 15 in 2004 when he stabbed his paternal grandfather, Bertis Jones, to death with a kitchen knife in a dispute over the younger Jones having his girlfriend over. Jones was convicted of murder and given a then-mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.

In its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that mandatory life without parole for those under 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court said mandatory life without parole for those under 18 at the time of their crimes was excessive except for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”

In 2016, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the high court made that Miller rule retroactive, prompting new court proceedings for hundreds of prisoners. Those hearings, like adult offenders seeking mitigating evidence to avoid the death penalty, sometimes examine school records or even testimony from the offender’s teachers or other education professionals.

But state courts of last resort have split on whether the sentencer—either a judge or jury, depending on the state—must find the defendant to be permanently incorrigible before imposing life without parole.

The Mississippi Supreme Court is one of four state high courts that have ruled the Eighth Amendment does not require a trial court to make a finding of permanent incorrigibility to sentence a juvenile to life without parole.

Jones was was granted new sentencing in 2015, before the Montgomery decision, but was nonetheless resentenced to life 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 said in his U.S. Supreme Court appeal in Jones v. Mississippi (Case No. 18-1259). “In fact, it did not address Brett’s capacity for rehabilitation at all.”

Jones’ resentencing hearing included testimony that Jones had suffered physical abuse as a child but that he was intelligent, had a high IQ, and had been in gifted classes in school. Further, he had earned his GED in prison and largely stayed out of trouble there, court papers said.

The Mississippi high court dismissed Jones’ appeal, with two dissenters saying that “because Jones’ criminal actions reflected transient immaturity, the Eighth Amendment prohibits a life without parole sentence.”

Jones’ appeal of his sentence was put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court while it heard arguments last fall in a similar case involving Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 in 2002 when he was one of the “D.C. snipers” who shot and killed 12 people and injured six others in the Washington area. Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without parole by Virginia for the crimes that occurred in that state. After the Miller and Montgomery decisions, the Virginia Supreme Court ordered resentencing for Malvo, whose life-without-parole sentence was not given on a mandatory basis but whose youth at the time of the crimes was not properly considered.

The U.S. Supreme Court had granted review of the Virginia decision. But early this year, Virginia passed a law that made juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences eligible for parole after 26 years. The justices dismissed Malvo’s case on Feb. 26.

In Jones’ case, his lawyers from Northwestern University and the University of Mississippi law schools argue that having special rules is appropriate for juveniles facing life without parole, which based on other U.S. Supreme Court rulings applies only to those accused of murder.

“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’s appeal says.

In a brief urging the justices not to take up the case, Mississippi argued that the Montgomery decision anticipated that states might adopt different procedures for carrying on the restriction on mandatory life-without-parole sentences.

“If this court intended that the sentencing court be required to make the finding of fact regarding the defendant being permanently incorrigible, it would have held that in either Miller or Montgomery,” the state said.

The Supreme Court will likely hear arguments in the case next fall, with a decision by June 2021.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.