Supreme Court changes course with ruling on juvenile sentenced to life without parole.
On April 22, 2021, The Supreme Court slowed its path of leniency for minors convicted of serious crimes. In a 6-to-3 ruling, the court said, “judges need not specifically find a juvenile murderer beyond rehabilitation before sentencing him to a lifetime in prison.”
In essence, this ruling allows state judges to order options like life-without-parole as long as they consider the defendant’s age.
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote, “the argument that the sentences must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility is inconsistent with the court’s precedents.”
The ruling came following the case of Jones v Mississippi. In 2004 Brett Jones, who was 15 at the time, now 31, murdered his grandfather. At the time of the murder, Mississippi law carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
Previous to President Trump’s term and the changes in the court which formed a conservative majority, rulings had leaned towards leniency for juvenile offenders.
According to the Washington Post, “the court ended capital punishment for those whose crimes were committed before age 18. In 2010, it barred life without parole in non-homicide crimes.”
In 2012, the ruling of Miller v Alabama ended mandatory life-without-parole sentences even for juvenile murders. In 2016, the ruling of Montgomery v Louisiana allowed those who had been sentenced under old rules to challenge their permanent imprisonment.
At the time, the court had said life without parole should be reserved for juvenile offenders whose crimes “reflect permanent incorrigibility.”
This language allowed for Jones to have his case re-heard. Despite the past rulings of the court, this time around the judges felt the state had ruled properly.
Kavanaugh said it was enough that the state’s life without parole for a juvenile was “discretionary” and the state judge had taken Jones’s youth into consideration.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the dissent; she argued this decision by the majority undermined past rulings – the past cases were meant to limit punishment to those only beyond redemption.
Kavanaugh wrote for the majority that states are free to get rid of life-without-parole, or on the flip-side, require matching sentences to those who aren’t redeemable.
In the dissent, Sotomayor stressed issues with unfair sentencing based on race, saying, “the harm from these sentences will not fall equally. The racial disparities in juvenile LWOP sentencing are stark: 70 percent of all youths sentenced to LWOP are children of color.”
Kavanaugh did add Jones did present both moral and policy arguments for why he should not spend his entire life in prison; the court’s decision will allow him to take his argument back to the state.
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