Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
On Thursday, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Jones v. Mississippi. There, the high court ruled that a criminal defendant who committed a homicide when he or she was under the age of 18 could be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole without the need to make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility. While some will undoubtedly oppose the imposition of such a severe sentence on a minor, others will rightfully applaud it as a fair and just result.
The case involved Brett Jones, who was convicted of murdering his grandfather when he was 15 years old. Jones allegedly stabbed his grandfather eight times, failed to call 911, tried to cover up his role in the murder, and provided officers with a fake name. At the time, Mississippi law imposed a mandatory sentence of life without parole for the crime of murder. After the conviction, the trial judge imposed this sentence in accordance with the applicable law.
Miller held that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory life-without-parole sentences for murderers under 18, but the Court allowed discretionary life-without-parole sentences for those offenders.
The Supreme Court subsequently decided the case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that the holding in Miller applied retroactively to juvenile offenders whose convictions and sentences were final when the Miller case was decided.
In light of the Miller decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered that Jones be resentenced. During the resentencing hearing, lawyers for Jones asked the sentencing judge to consider his age when determining the appropriate sentence. They further argued that “nothing in this record . . . would support a finding that the offense reflects irreparable corruption.” As a result, lawyers sought a lighter sentence.
The judge, who had discretion to impose a lesser sentence pursuant to Miller, refused to do so after considering various factors relative to the defendant’s culpability, and maintained that life without parole was the appropriate sentence. Interestingly, and as reported by NPR, by the time that Jones was resentenced, “he had spent a decade in prison, had graduated from high school, and earned a record as a model prisoner.”
Jones appealed his sentence to the Mississippi Court of Appeals. There, his primary argument was that “in order to impose a life-without-parole sentence on a defendant who committed a murder when he or she was under 18, the sentencer must make a separate factual finding that the defendant is permanently incorrigible.” In other words, before imposing a life sentence without parole, the judge would have to make a separate factual finding that the defendant could not be corrected, improved, or reformed. The appellate court rejected this argument (along with one other that is not discussed here).
The case subsequently reached the Supreme Court. The high court granted certiorari to clarify the meaning of the Miller and Montgomery cases. Jones argued that Miller required more than just a “discretionary sentencing procedure.” More particularly, Jones argued that Miller required the sentencer to make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a murderer under 18 to life without parole. In rejecting this argument, the Supreme Court noted:
Repeatedly citing Woodson, Lockett, and Eddings, the Miller Court stated that “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider” the defendant’s youth and must have “discretion to impose a different punishment” than life without parole. Stated otherwise, the Miller Court mandated “only that a sentencer follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing” a life-without-parole sentence. In that process, the sentencer will consider the murderer’s “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change.” That sentencing procedure ensures that the sentencer affords individualized “consideration” to, among other things, the defendant’s “chronological age and its hallmark features.”
Instead, Miller cited Roper and Graham for a simple proposition: Youth matters in sentencing. And because youth matters, Miller held that a sentencer must have discretion to consider youth before imposing a life without-parole sentence, just as a capital sentencer must have discretion to consider other mitigating factors before imposing a death sentence.
In short, Miller followed the Court’s many death penalty cases and required that a sentencer consider youth as a mitigating factor when deciding whether to impose a life-without-parole sentence. Miller did not require the sentencer to make a separate finding of permanent incorrigibility before imposing such a sentence. And Montgomery did not purport to add to Miller’s requirements.
On the question of what Miller required, Montgomery was clear: “A hearing where youth and its attendant characteristics are considered as sentencing factors is necessary to separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not.” But a separate finding of permanent incorrigibility “is not required.”
The Supreme Court ultimately held that “in the case of a defendant who committed a homicide when he or she was under 18, the sentencer is not required to make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing the defendant to life without parole.” In doing so, the court explained that its decision was in line with, and did not alter, its previous decisions in Miller or Montgomery.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Jones should be applauded. In rendering the decision, the court did not provide a rubber stamp permitting judges to automatically sentence those under 18 who are guilty of homicide to life in prison without parole. Rather, the high court correctly held that a separate factual finding of incorrigibility was not required before imposing a sentence of this nature.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed with the ruling and issued a scathing dissent. As reported by NPR, Sotomayor quoted something that Jones said at his resentencing hearing, where he stated, “I’ve pretty much taken every avenue that I could possibly take … to rehabilitate myself … I can’t change what I’ve done. I can just try to show … I’ve become a grown man.” According to Cardozo Law School’s Kathryn Miller:
“It’s going to be much harder to convince judges” that evidence of rehabilitation is relevant.
“A lot of times these judges really want to still focus on the facts of the crime” even though it is years or decades later. They’re not interested in the rehabilitation narrative.
While the prospect of rehabilitation is very important for juvenile offenders under certain circumstances, homicide presents unique legal and moral questions. For example, how much “time” is another person’s life worth? Why should a juvenile who is guilty of homicide even get a second chance? Can any amount of time-served “make up” for the loss of life, regardless of how much the offender has changed?
Clearly, the decision to sentence a young offender to life in prison without parole is a difficult one. As the Supreme Court has consistently recognized, kids are different than adults. However, when it comes to homicide, they should not be immune from receiving the harshest of sentences. In essence, the conservative-leaning court left the sentencing decision up to the judge, and permitted the judge to impose this extreme sentence when warranted.