Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument for Jones v. Mississippi, in which the Court will consider whether a juvenile offender must be found incapable of rehabilitation to be sentenced to life without parole.
The arguments turned largely on how the Court should interpret two other Supreme Court cases: Miller v. Alabama, which deemed unconstitutional sentencing schemes that mandate life without parole for certain juvenile offenders, and Montgomery v. Louisiana, which made the Miller rule apply retroactively. Brett Jones was sentenced to life without parole — the state’s mandatory sentence for murder — after he killed his grandfather in August of 2004, less than a month after his 15th birthday. After Miller was decided, the Supreme Court of Mississippi decided that its holding should apply to Jones’ case and ordered resentencing. The judge at resentencing upheld Jones’ previous sentence.
In the case now pending before the Court, Jones argues that the judge who resentenced him operated under a fundamental misunderstanding of Miller because he failed to find that Jones was “permanently incorrigible” before sentencing him to life without parole. The phrase “permanent incorrigibility” comes from Montgomery — decided the year after Jones’ resentencing — in which the Supreme Court wrote that Miller barred life without parole “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” The state, meanwhile, argues that Miller merely required that a sentencing court take into account how the qualities of youth counsel against sentencing children to a lifetime in prison, and that a finding of “permanent incorrigibility” is just “one way of testing the sentence’s proportionality”.
To maintain consistency with the letter and spirit of its precedents on juvenile sentencing, the Supreme Court should rule in Jones’ favor and confirm that the penalty of life without parole cannot be given to juveniles without a determination of “permanent incorrigibility.” However, this step does not go far enough to protect children from disproportionate punishment or maintain logical coherence in the Court’s jurisprudence. Ultimately, the Supreme Court should recognize that life sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment.
Although Miller declined to consider whether “the Eight Amendment requires a categorical ban on life without parole for juveniles,” it did state that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.” That is “especially so,” the court said, because of the difficulty of distinguishing “‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’” (quoting Roper v. Simmons). Thus, even before its holding is elaborated on in Montgomery, Miller reasoned that the handing down of the “harshest possible penalty” for juveniles should turn on the distinction between “transient immaturity” and “irreparable corruption.” Montgomery went on to make the importance of this distinction even more clear. It is not enough, the Court said, for a court to “consider a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison.” Miller barred life without parole for an entire class of criminal defendants: “juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” in contrast to “those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”
While the judge who resentenced Jones did consider his youth, he did not make any finding of incorrigibility. At oral argument, Jones’ lawyer argued that such a finding does not require the judge to utter certain “magic words,” but that in this case the sentencing judge cannot be assumed to have operated under a correct understanding of Miller because that the remanding judge incorrectly instructed that a sentence of life without parole would be unconstitutional “if and only if the sentencing judge [did] not consider youth-related circumstances.”
Although the Supreme Court would adhere to precedent if it were to require a “permanent incorrigibility” standard in cases like Jones’, the question would still remain of whether there is such thing as a permanently incorrigible juvenile offender. Herein lies an inconsistency in the Supreme Court’s overall approach to juvenile life sentences. While the Court has seemingly rejected the notion that no juvenile offender may be sentenced to life without parole, the evidence it points to in cases like Miller suggests that no juvenile offender could be accurately found to belong to the category of “rarest juvenile offender” for which the Court reserves this penalty.
One jarring example of this inconsistency can be found in the language of Graham v. Florida, which made life sentences without parole unconstitutional for juveniles who did not commit homicide. After citing the scientific consensus that juveniles are immature, vulnerable to outside influences and lack fully formed characters, the Court wrote that “[t]o justify life without parole on the assumption that the juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society requires the sentencer to make a judgment that the juvenile is incorrigible.” The Court went on to say, however, that “the characteristics of juveniles make that judgment questionable. . . . As one court concluded in a challenge to a life without parole sentence for a 14-year-old, ‘incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth.’” By endorsing this statement that “incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth” and later stating that life without parole should be reserved only for juvenile offenders “whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility,” the Court seems to leave no room for the Eighth Amendment to actually allow any juvenile offender to be sentenced to life without parole.
If this category of irredeemable offender does exist, Jones certainly does not belong to it. Jones, now 31 years old, stabbed his grandfather during a fight about his then-girlfriend. The act might be viewed as bloody and brutal; at the same time, it is hard to miss the imprint of teenage impetuousness. At age 15, Jones’ logical reasoning skills would have been underdeveloped, and he would have lacked “adult capacities to exercise self-restraint, to weigh risk and reward appropriately, and to envision the future . . . .” He had a troubled home life with his mother and stepfather, which he had tried to escape by moving in with his grandparents. His grandmother, the victim’s widow, continues to believe that Brett “is not and never was irreparably corrupt.”
Currently, the United States is the only nation to allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole. Although Jones v. Mississippi does not explicitly present the question of whether such a penalty should be abolished, it is due time for the Supreme Court to make a final call on our country’s practice of condemning children to die in prison––a cruel and unusual punishment, even for the “rarest” of juvenile offenders.