In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that juvenile offenders need not be found permanently incorrigible before being sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole, ending a series of decisions that had steadily expanded protections for children convicted of serious crimes, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The decision divided the court along conservative-liberal lines over the meaning of recent precedents that forbid mandatory life-without-parole for juveniles convicted of murder. The majority opinion, by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, narrowly applied such decisions, finding only that trial judges passing sentence must have the option to impose lesser punishment on juveniles.
The dissent, by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, accused the majority of misreading the substance of those precedents to deny constitutional rights the court had found protected juveniles from cruel and unusual punishment.
Thursday’s case concerned Brett Jones, who was 15 years old in 2004 when he fatally stabbed his grandfather, Bertis Jones, in the Shannon, Miss., home they shared. Sotomayor’s dissent cited statistics showing that in Mississippi, more than a quarter of inmates resentenced under the Montgomery rule received life without parole. In contrast, she said, Pennsylvania required a finding of permanent incorrigibility without hope of rehabilitation—and only 2 percent there were resentenced to life without parole.
Across the country, Justice Sotomayor wrote, inmates serving such sentences disproportionately “are children of color.” The majority, in contrast, saw the statistics as a glass half full, pointing out that states had significantly reduced life without parole for juveniles or abolished it altogether.