US Supreme Court rules on life imprisonment for juveniles
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US Supreme Court rules on life imprisonment for juveniles

The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday in Jones v. Mississippi that when sentencing juvenile defendants to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole, judges need not make a separate factual finding concerning the defendant’s youth.

The challenge came from Brett Jones, who was convicted in 2004 of killing his grandfather at age 15. Jones argued that under two of the court’s recent decisions, 2012’s Miller v. Alabama and 2016’s Montgomery v. Louisiana, judges could only sentence juvenile defendants to life imprisonment if they made a separate factual finding that the defendant could not be rehabilitated.

The court’s six conservative justices disagreed. In the opinion authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the majority held that Miller and Montgomery imposed no such requirement. Instead, under Miller, a sentencing judge must only “consider youth as a mitigating factor when deciding whether to impose a life-without-parole sentence.” Montgomery only held that Miller “applied retroactively on collateral review.” It did not impose any new requirements. If the court had intended to require “a factual finding of permanent incorrigibility” it would have “could have” and “would have said so,” but it did not.

The court also declined to impose a new rule requiring judges to find juvenile defendants incorrigible before sentencing them to life imprisonment, because “it would be all but impossible for a sentencer to avoid considering” youth under the current rule. Kavanaugh also noted that the Eighth Amendment had not been violated because Jones’s life-sentence “was not mandatory and the trial judge had discretion to impose a lesser punishment in light of Jones’s youth.”

In her dissenting opinion joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated that the majority opinion “twists precedent” and “distorts Miller and Montgomery beyond recognition.” While Miller does not “require sentencers to invoke any magic words,” sentencing judges must still decide whether the defendant is “one of those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.” Even if the court had “doubts” about that rule, they should have provided “special justification” before overruling Miller and Montgomery, which they failed to do:

How low this Court’s respect for stare decisis has sunk. … Now, it seems, the Court is willing to overrule precedent without even acknowledging it is doing so, much less providing any special justification. It is hard to see how that approach is “founded in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals,” [as Justice Kavanaugh said in an earlier decision]. … 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 grew up. … For most, the answer is yes.