Juvenile Justice

Supreme Court's failure to determine 'irreparable corruption' in juvenile case risks ignoring precedent, ABA says in brief

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Juvenile in handcuffs

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In an amicus brief filed Friday, the ABA urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a judgment against a Mississippi man who is serving life in prison without parole because the sentencing court failed to determine whether the crime he committed as a juvenile reflected "transient immaturity" or "irreparable corruption."

In its brief, the ABA contends that under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Eighth Amendment permits life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in only rare cases. The association adds that a ruling in this case that prohibits states from circumventing the court’s earlier decisions would be consistent with the rule of law.

“A sentencing court’s failure to decide whether the juvenile defendant before it is among those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption carries the too great risk that this Court’s substantive constitutional rule in Miller will go unheeded,” the ABA writes.

According to his petition, Brett Jones was 15 when he killed his grandfather in 2004. He was living with his grandparents at the time and had argued with his grandfather about his girlfriend being in his bedroom. When they fought again later, Jones stabbed his grandfather eight times with a knife.

A Lee County jury rejected Jones’ claim of self-defense, finding him guilty, and the circuit court sentenced him to life in prison without parole.

After the Supreme Court decided Miller in 2012, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated Jones’ sentence and remanded his case for a new sentencing hearing. He states in his petition that even though his defense provided evidence through six witnesses that he had been abused, suffered from several mental health conditions and expressed remorse for his actions, the circuit court again sentenced him to life in prison without parole.

Jones appealed to the Mississippi Court of Appeals, which rejected his argument that the sentencing judge only focused on the nature of his crime and did not determine whether he was “irretrievably depraved, irreparably corrupt, or permanently incorrigible.” He then appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which decided 5-4 to dismiss his petition.

The ABA says in its brief that to comply with Miller and follow the rule of law, the Supreme Court “should impose a guardrail on the states’ discretion to design their own procedures” by requiring the sentencing authority to ask and answer the question of whether a juvenile defendant’s crime reflects permanent incorrigibility.

“Sentencing courts can answer that essential question by make a finding on the record of permanent incorrigibility—indeed, that is the best way to ensure adherence to the holding of Miller and Montgomery,” the ABA continues. “Alternatively, states may assign the prosecution the burden of rebutting a presumption against permanent incorrigibility.

“Regardless, states still will retain considerable leeway in the ‘task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences.’”

The ABA is a longtime supporter of juvenile justice, promulgating the comprehensive Juvenile Justice Standards in 1980 and adopting policy opposing capital punishment for under the age of 18 in 1983.

The association has filed amicus briefs to protect children in the juvenile justice system in several cases, including Miller and Montgomery, which held in 2016 that Miller applies retroactively. It also recently filed an amicus brief in Mathena v. Malvo, a case that considered a similar issue but was dismissed after a new Virginia law made juvenile offenders eligible for parole after 20 years.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Jones v. Mississippi in March after that case’s dismissal. Oral arguments have not been scheduled.

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