Justices' Life Sentence Ruling Is A Step Back For Youth Rights

By Brandon Garrett | May 2, 2021, 8:02 PM EDT

Brandon Garrett
On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision ruled against Brett Jones, who sought to challenge his resentencing to life without parole for a murder he committed at the age of 15.

The ruling in Jones v. Mississippi has larger implications for our jurisprudence under the Eighth Amendment, regarding what consists of cruel and unusual punishment, as well as the rights of juveniles more broadly. The ruling, in short, reflects an emboldened majority on the Supreme Court that feels unconstrained by prior precedent and comfortable with casual state treatment of the constitutional rights of juveniles.

When Jones was first convicted in Mississippi in 2005, a life-without-parole sentence was mandatory for any first-degree murder, including for a juvenile. Then followed the Supreme Court's ruling in the landmark case of Miller v. Alabama, where the court held in 2012 that mandatory life without parole for juveniles is a form of cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Eighth Amendment.

Yet when Jones received a resentencing hearing in 2015, a trial judge again sentenced him to life without parole, without even considering whether he was or could be rehabilitated. Further, in 2016, in Montgomery v. Alabama, the Supreme Court made the ruling in Miller applicable retroactively. The court emphasized that "a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption."

Most states took that "irreparable" language seriously, but not Mississippi and three other states — Washington, Idaho and Michigan — where state high courts held that a finding of permanent incorrigibility is not required before resentencing a juvenile to life without parole. While Washington has since barred juvenile life-without-parole sentences under its state constitution, the Supreme Court's ruling in Jones' case permits those other states to continue to go their own way, as outliers.

How did the majority opinion, authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, justify this result? The majority emphasized that the Miller ruling did not specifically require a finding of irreparable corruption. The majority called the procedure that Miller demanded one that is "discretionary," treating it as flexible, and left open to state judges. Further, the majority rejected the notion that the Eighth Amendment would require on-the-record fact-finding.

The majority concluded by clearly stating that it did not "overrule Miller or Montgomery" and instead, the ruling in Jones represents a "good-faith disagreement" with the dissent regarding how to best interpret those rulings. Further, the majority noted that life without parole for juveniles has been far less often imposed and that states may take additional efforts to limit such sentences or to abolish them entirely.

The dissent began by emphasizing how the Montgomery court, with then-Justice Anthony Kennedy writing for the majority, emphasized that juvenile life without parole should be rare: "[S]entencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."

To be sure, the Montgomery court emphasized: "That this finding is not required, however, speaks only to the degree of procedure Miller mandated in order to implement its substantive guarantee."

The Montgomery court added:

That Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement does not leave States free to sentence a child whose crime reflects transient immaturity to life without parole. To the contrary, Miller established that this punishment is disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment.

The dissent called the Jones ruling a break from precedent.

No other country in the world allows juvenile life-without-parole sentences, which are prohibited by a number of human rights treaties. A dwindling number of states permit it even within the United States.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's ruling in Jones' case holds up shoddily supported juvenile life-without-parole sentences in a few outlier states that do not clearly require that such sentences be limited only to the rare cases of permanently incorrigible youth.

The Jones ruling is a troubling step away from a line of cases making clear that rehabilitation is the focus when juveniles are charged with crimes. Further, the dissent highlighted how prior Supreme Court rulings, including Miller, emphasized that "children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing."

In its 2011 ruling in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court emphasized that "time and time again" the justices have "observed that children generally are less mature and responsible than adults." In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the court ruled that mandatory life without parole for juveniles is a form of cruel and unusual punishment and it violates the Eighth Amendment. In 2016, in Montgomery v. Alabama, the justices held that this rule applied retroactively to old cases as well, like Jones'.

The court's ruling in Jones matters less for current cases. Most of the approximately 2,000 people currently in prison with such sentences were sentenced in the 1990s, soon after most of the relevant states adopted juvenile life without parole. In recent years, a growing number of states have passed laws abolishing life without parole for juveniles; 25 states have done so, including, most recently, Maryland, Ohio and Virginia.

However, the Jones ruling may affect the important process of revising the rush to sentence juveniles in the mid-late 1990s.

My colleagues and I recently examined the cases of 94 North Carolina juveniles, aged 13 to 17 at the time of their offenses, who were sentenced to life without parole. Almost half of those people have been resentenced after they had hearings post-Miller.[1]

In almost every case, when courts have considered all of the evidence, they have found that juveniles were capable of rehabilitation and did not deserve life without parole. Perhaps after Jones, though, courts may not always conduct a careful review.

To be sure, in states like North Carolina, juvenile life-without-parole sentencing has markedly declined. It persists in just a handful of counties with prosecutors that have a history of seeking this sentence. These sentences are not a function of murder rates, but rather prosecutorial discretion.

That makes the entire practice especially ripe for reconsideration under the Eighth Amendment as a per se cruel and unusual practice. This Supreme Court clearly will not take that important constitutional step.

There is much work to be done to reform how we treat juveniles in our criminal legal system. It speaks poorly of our constitutional system that the Supreme Court cannot bring itself to recognize that juvenile life without parole has no place in our country, where every other county in the world has abolished it.

As the majority in Jones emphasized, meaningful reform will have to come at the state level, where, fortunately, lawmakers that must confront these injustices directly are increasingly doing so as a matter of state law.

Brandon Garrett is the L. Neil Williams Jr. professor of law at Duke University School of Law, and director of the school's Wilson Center for Science and Justice. He is the author, most recently, of "Autopsy of a Crime Lab: Exposing the Flaws in Forensics" (University of California Press, 2021).

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] Ben Finholt, Brandon L. Garrett, Karima Modjadidi and Kristen M. Renberg, Juvenile Life Without Parole in North Carolina, 110 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 141 (2020), https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/jclc/vol110/iss2/2.

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