High Court Decision Called ‘Alarming Reversal’ in  Youth Justice

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Authority of Law Statue, in front of Supreme Court building, Washington. Photo by Matt Wade via Flickr

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court in Jones v. Mississippi ruled judges do not need to make a factual finding of “permanent incorrigibility” when deciding to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

That not only amounts to a reversal of a precedent set earlier by the Court, but is an “alarming” step back in protecting juveniles, say Arthur Ago and Rochelle Swartz of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

In an essay in Bloomberg Law, the lawyers argued that by not requiring a finding of incorrigibility, courts will be deciding sentences with a “deficient examination of a young person’s humanity.”

The decision follows multiple previous precedents set by the Court over the past decade that sharply limited courts’ ability to sentence a juvenile offender to life in prison without parole, the lawyers wrote.

In Miller v. Alabama (2012), the court ruled that mandatory life in prison without parole for juvenile offenders was cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Eighth Amendment. Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), the court ruled the decision in Miller applied retroactively and that it applied “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

Even prior to these rulings, it was recognized that “there are fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds,” write Ago and Swartz.

“But the majority of the court unraveled this holding. As the dissent put it, the majority supplanted what the court had decided just five years ago with what the new justices wish had been said.”

brett jones

Brett Jones received his GED degree while he was serving a life without parole sentence. Photo courtesy Mississippi Department of Corrections

The decision turned on the case of Brett Jones, then 15, who was convicted of killing his grandfather and sentenced to the mandatory penalty under Mississippi state law of life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2005.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller, Jones appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court for an order that he be resentenced. However, at his resentencing, the judge deemed life in prison without parole to still be the appropriate sentence even after recognizing he had the discretion to impose a lesser sentence.

Jones appealed to the Mississippi Court of Appeals which rejected his argument before he appealed to the Supreme Court.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority 6-3 opinion of the Court, said states are only required to consider the age of the juvenile when considering a life in prison without parole sentence, a decision that broke with the ruling in Miller which also required a finding of incorrigibility.

He argued this does not contradict the holding in either Miller or Montgomery, due to the discretionary decision of the judge, something the dissent strongly disagreed with.

“The court is fooling no one,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in her dissent.

She argued the Court has offered no “special justification,” as required, for breaking from the precedent set in Miller and has therefore circumvented stare decisis, the legal principle that states the court must follow previous precedents.

“The question is whether the state, at some point, must consider whether a juvenile offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation sufficient to merit a chance at life beyond the prison in which he has grown up,” Sotomayor wrote.

“For most, the answer is yes.”

Black youth offenders will likely bear the brunt of the impact of this decision.

From 2005 to 2013, Black juvenile offenders were given life in prison without parole sentences at nearly a 2-to-one ratio compared to white juvenile offenders when controlling for arrests, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Many juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole experience higher than normal rates of violence and socioeconomic disadvantage.

A survey conducted in 2012 by the Sentencing Project of 1,579 juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole found the majority of these juveniles experienced high levels of violence, with 79 percent reporting they witnessed violence in their homes, and 54.1 percent witnessing it weekly in their neighborhoods.

Almost half experienced physical abuse including 80 percent of girls. Fewer than half of the juveniles surveyed were attending school at the time of their offense.

The U.S. remains the only country in the world that allows life sentences without parole for juveniles, according to the Sentencing Project. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have banned life in prison without parole for children under state law.

Under the Jones decision, states will still maintain the ability to set their own sentencing standards and now bear the job of deciding how those standards will look.

“The nation must take the court up on its invitation, and make the ‘broad moral and policy judgment’ to choose to view the humanity of these young people,” wrote Ago and Swartz.

Blake Diaz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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