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Supreme Court backtracks on life sentences for juveniles

by | Apr 26, 2021 | Criminal Appeals

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Miller v. Alabama that seemed to hold life sentences without parole for juveniles unconstitutional. The court found that locking a juvenile away for life without the possibility of parole was cruel and unusual punishment, as they are still developing mentally when their crimes take place. Not only are they less culpable than their adult peers, but they are also more readily rehabilitated.

Now, however, the high court has sharply limited that ruling’s effect. Instead of banning all life sentences without parole for juveniles, they said, Miller v. Alabama only prohibited the practice of making those sentences mandatory by statute.

“The Eighth Amendment permits a life-without-parole sentence for a defendant who committed a homicide when he or she was under 18, but only if the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh for the 6-3 majority in Jones v. Mississippi. “A discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient.”

The facts of Jones v. Mississippi are stark. Brett Jones killed his grandfather in 2004 at age 15. His grandfather had discovered a girl in his bedroom one August morning. A fight ensued in which the grandfather ordered Jones to move out. Later, Jones stabbed his grandfather with a kitchen knife. The knife broke, and Jones picked up another one to finish the job, ultimately stabbing his grandfather eight times.

Jones was not found to be permanently incorrigible, yet he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The lack of a finding of incorrigibility, combined with the high court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, led Jones’s attorneys to argue that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

Unfortunately, the high court disagreed. Pointing to a related juvenile life sentences case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, Kavanaugh wrote that a finding of incorrigibility is not required before sentencing a juvenile to life behind bars. Indeed, Kavanaugh implied that handing down a life sentence is an “implicit finding” of permanent incorrigibility.

In other words, because the sentencing judge could have chosen a lesser sentence based on Jones’s youth but did not do so, the life sentence without parole was constitutional.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen G. Breyer joined in a dissent. Writing for the dissenters, Justice Sotomayor argued that the ruling in this case “would come as a shock” to the courts that decided Miller and Montgomery.

Miller v. Alabama was a bright light in criminal jurisprudence, which often goes against defendants. The court should have followed its reasoning and recognized how different juveniles are from their adult peers.

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