Law & Courts

Supreme Court Lowers Bar for Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Juvenile Offenders

By Mark Walsh — April 22, 2021 6 min read
The Supreme Court in Washington as seen on Oct. 7, 2020. After more than a decade in which the Supreme Court moved gradually toward more leniency for minors convicted of murder, the justices have moved the other way. The high court ruled 6-3 Thursday along ideological lines against a Mississippi inmate sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for fatally stabbing his grandfather when the defendant was 15 years old. The case is important because it marks a break with the court’s previous rulings and is evidence of the impact of a newly more conservative court.

In a significant ruling on juvenile justice, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday held that in cases of defendants who commit murder when they are under 18, a state does not need to make a finding that the offender was “permanently incorrigible” before imposing a sentence of life without parole.

Writing for a 6-3 majority in the case of a Mississippi man who was 15 when he killed his grandfather, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh said that a judge or other sentencing authority must still take the youth of a juvenile offender into account and that such a “discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient.”

But in two key precedents in this area, Kavanaugh said, “the court has unequivocally stated that a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility is not required before a sentencer imposes a life-without-parole sentence on a murderer under 18.”

In a sharp dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the majority “guts” and “distorts” the two key precedents “beyond recognition.”

“What is necessary … is that a sentencer decide whether the juvenile offender before it is a child whose crimes reflect transient immaturity or is one of those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption,” Sotomayor wrote.

The decision in Jones v. Mississippi (Case No. 18-1259) marks a departure from a string of pro-juvenile decisions by the high court since 2005, many of which were written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who retired from the court in 2018 and was replaced by Kavanaugh.

Those rulings include the two central to the new decision. In Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole for those who commit homicide as minors violate the Eighth Amendment. And in 2016, in Montgomery v. Alabama, the court held that Miller applies retroactively and thus hundreds of serious juvenile offenders had to be resentenced. Those hearings often examine the offender’s childhood and school record, and sometimes include testimony from educators.

Juvenile justice and youth advocacy groups had filed briefs

The Mississippi case involves 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.

After the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for Jones. At that hearing, which included testimony that Jones had a high IQ and had been in gifted classes in school, a trial judge again sentenced him to life without parole without finding him permanently incorrigible or assessing his capacity for rehabilitation.

Jones was supported in his U.S. Supreme Court appeal by dozens of civil rights, juvenile justice, and youth advocacy groups. An estimated 1,500 other juvenile offenders are serving life-without-parole sentences.

Kavanaugh’s majority opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett.

Kavanaugh said the 2012 Miller decision required only, in the words of that decision, “that a sentencer follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing” a life-without-parole sentence.

Montgomery then flatly stated that ‘Miller did not impose a formal fact-finding requirement’ and that ‘a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility … is not required,’” Kavanaugh said.

“The key assumption of both Miller and Montgomery was that discretionary sentencing allows the sentencer to consider the defendant’s youth, and thereby helps ensure that life-without-parole sentences are imposed only in cases where that sentence is appropriate in light of the defendant’s age,” Kavanaugh said.

He went on to say that the court’s Montgomery and Miller decisions “have been consequential” in reducing the number of new life-without-parole sentences for juvenile murderers and allowing some of those whose sentences were final before Miller to seek and receive new, lesser sentences.

“A discretionary sentencing procedure has indeed helped make life-without-parole sentences for offenders under 18 relatively rare,” Kavanaugh said. And the court’s rulings in this area do not preclude the states from prohibiting all life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders or requiring sentencers to make extra factual findings, he said.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion concurring only in the bottom-line judgment in the case, in which he repeated his view that the court’s 2016 Montgomery decision was procedurally wrong and put multiple states in a position where they had to consider parole for many juvenile homicide offenders or else hold new sentencing hearing long after the crimes.

In a footnote, Thomas observed that the court often referred to “children” in its cases on juvenile murderers, pointing to language in Montgomery that “children are different” from adult offenders and courts must consider “a child’s lesser culpability.” (Kavanaugh appears to have used “children” only in quotes from earlier opinions.)

“And yet, when assessing the court-created right of an individual of the same age to seek an abortion, members of this court take pains to emphasize a ‘young woman’s’ right to choose,” Thomas said. “It is curious how the court’s view of the maturity of minors ebbs and flows depending on the issue.”

Youth as a time of immaturity

Sotomayor, whose dissent was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan, fundamentally disagreed with Kavanaugh about whether the Miller and Montgomery decisions required a specific finding of permanent incorrigibility.

She walked through the court’s line of decisions since Roper v. Simmons, in 2005, which barred the death penalty for juvenile offenders, and their conclusions that juveniles are less mature and responsible than adults and more vulnerable to outside influences. In another case, the court said that “incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth” and that “maturity can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation.”

Sotomayor said that “there are very few juveniles for whom the signature qualities of youth do not undermine the penological justifications” for a life-without-parole sentence.

“Youth is a time of immaturity, irresponsibility, impetuousness, and recklessness, and, almost invariably, those qualities are all transient,” she said.

Sotomayor questioned the majority’s contention that life-without-parole sentences for juvenile murderers will be rare, and she pointed to evidence of “stark” racial disparities in such sentences: 70 percent of all youths that have such sentences are children of color, according to one brief filed in the case.

The Miller and Montgomery decisions “have not proved unworkable,” Sotomayor said. “To the contrary, they have spurred reforms across the country while avoiding intruding more than necessary upon the states’ sovereign administration of their criminal justice systems.”

Sotomayor discussed Jones’s case in some detail, and said “many aspects of Jones’ crime seem to epitomize unfortunate yet transient immaturity.”

“No one disputes that this was a terrible crime,” Sotomayor said, but Jones’s murder of his grandfather appeared to reflect the distinct attributes of youth.

“Jones and other juvenile offenders like him seek only the possibility of parole,” Sotomayor said. “Not the certainty of release, but the opportunity, at some point in their lives, to show a parole board all they have done to rehabilitate themselves and to ask for a second chance.”

Kavanaugh said the majority opinion “is far from the last word on whether Jones will receive relief from his sentence.” Jones may present his “moral and policy arguments” on why he should not spend the rest of his life in prison “to the state officials authorized to act on them, such as the state legislature, state courts, or governor.”

“Those state avenues for sentencing relief remain open to Jones, and they will remain open to him for years to come,” Kavanaugh said.

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