U.S. Supreme Court

Juvenile can get life without parole for murder without finding of permanent incorrigibility, Supreme Court rules

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Young teen in handcuffs

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a defendant can be sentenced to life without parole for a homicide committed as a juvenile without a separate finding of permanent incorrigibility.

The high court ruled 6-3 against Brett Jones, who fatally stabbed his grandfather in 2004 at age 15. Jones had testified that he felt trapped during an argument with his grandfather, and he stabbed the man—first with one knife and then with another—until he stopped coming at him.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion in Jones v. Mississippi, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment.

Jones at first received an automatic sentence of life without parole, but he received a new sentencing hearing after the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller should be applied retroactively on collateral review.

In the new sentencing hearing, the judge acknowledged that he had sentencing discretion but once again sentenced Jones to life without parole.

Jones argued that Montgomery required the sentencing judge to make a specific finding that he is permanently incorrigible or at least to provide an explanation that implicitly supports such a finding. Jones had based his argument on language in Montgomery that said Miller allowed life-without-parole sentences only for “those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,” rather than “transient immaturity.”

Kavanaugh rejected Jones’ argument.

“The problem for Jones is that Miller and Montgomery squarely rejected such a requirement,” Kavanaugh wrote.

“In short, Miller followed the court’s many death penalty cases and required that a sentencer consider youth as a mitigating factor when deciding whether to impose a life-without-parole sentence,” Kavanaugh said. “Miller did not require the sentencer to make a separate finding of permanent incorrigibility before imposing such a sentence. And Montgomery did not purport to add to Miller’s requirements.”

Kavanaugh said the majority’s ruling “should not be construed as agreement or disagreement with the sentence imposed against Jones.” But the “broad moral and policy judgments” in such cases are left to the states, which are free to impose additional sentencing limits for juveniles who commit murders. States could ban all life-without-parole sentences in such cases, could require an explanation for the sentence, or could establish proportionality requirements, Kavanaugh said.

“But the U.S. Constitution, as this court’s precedents have interpreted it, does not demand those particular policy approaches,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Thomas’ opinion argued that the majority had adopted a “strained reading” of Montgomery v. Louisiana and should have held that it was an “demonstrably erroneous” decision. Miller was a procedural, rather than a substantive, ruling, and it should not be applied retroactively in Montgomery, Thomas said.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan. Sotomayor argued that the majority “guts” the two juvenile cases on life without parole.

“The court attempts to circumvent stare decisis principles by claiming that ‘the court’s decision today carefully follows both Miller and Montgomery,’” Sotomayor wrote. “The court is fooling no one.”

When Jones left an abusive home to live with his grandparents, his mental health medications were abruptly cut off, Sotomayor said. The murder happened less than two months later. In prison, Jones completed his GED, sought out work, and committed only two disciplinary infractions in the five years before his resentencing.

Because the resentencing judge did not address whether Jones was the rare juvenile deserving life without parole, his sentence should not stand, Sotomayor said.

Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: The Supreme Court returns to a term like no other”

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court’s failure to determine ‘irreparable corruption’ in juvenile case risks ignoring precedent, ABA says in brief”

ABAJournal.com: “Afternoon Briefs: Supreme Court to hear juvenile sentencing case; Led Zeppelin wins ‘Stairway’ fight”

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