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Supreme Court Abandons Rule Restricting Juvenile Sentences of Life Without Parole

View of the US Supreme Court Building on a bright Christmas Day
By Laura Temme, Esq. on April 27, 2021 3:57 PM

The Supreme Court recently upheld a life sentence without parole for a man convicted of murder when he was 15 years old. In Jones v. Mississippi, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment does not require judges to separately find a juvenile defendant "permanently incorrigible," or incapable of rehabilitation, before sentencing them to life without parole.

The 6-3 decision, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, addresses the Court's 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama and a 2016 decision, Montgomery v. Louisiana. Many, including the dissent, argue the majority's opinion pays lip service to Miller and Montgomery, but basically strips those decisions of all effectiveness.

Background: Miller and Montgomery

In Miller, the court held that automatic life sentences without the possibility of parole violated 8th Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment when applied to juvenile offenders. The court based its reasoning on the fact that children's brains are not fully developed, finding that children's crimes reflect "transient immaturity." The opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan, also pointed out that children have a higher potential for rehabilitation.

Montgomery held that the Miller decision applied retroactively. The majority reasoned that the rule announced in Miller made life without parole an unconstitutional punishment for "all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility."

Jones, who is now in his thirties, argued that the Mississippi Supreme Court misinterpreted what Montgomery and Miller require. Specifically, he says the sentencing judge in his case did not consider whether he is capable of redemption. Jones' attorneys argued that the Supreme Court should have enforced the "settled law" in Miller and Montgomery by requiring the state courts to determine whether Jones is "irretrievably depraved, irreparably corrupt, or permanently incorrigible."

Majority Leaves Juvenile Sentences Open for Judicial Discretion

However, Justice Kavanaugh writes that judges are not required to "make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility." Further, the majority held that Miller and Montgomery don't require judges to provide any on-the-record explanations for sentences that imply permanent incorrigibility. Instead, judges only need to consider youth as a mitigating factor when deciding on a life sentence.

Writing separately, Justice Clarence Thomas acknowledged that the majority was subverting Miller and Montgomery. In his view, the majority should have openly overturned Montgomery:

"[T]he majority adopts a strained reading of Montgomery v. Louisiana (citation omitted), instead of outright admitting that it is irreconcilable with Miller v. Alabama."

Dissent Argues Kavanaugh Distorts Precedent

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. According to Justice Sotomayor, the majority is "fooling no one." She called Justice Kavanaugh's opinion "an abrupt break from precedent," arguing that Miller and Montgomery do require an actual finding of incorrigibility. Justice Sotomayor's dissent eviscerated the majority, noting that this conclusion would shock prior justices:

"The Court simply rewrites Miller and Montgomery to say what the Court now wishes they had said," she wrote, "and then denies that it has done any such thing."

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