A US Supreme Court ruling on Thursday will no longer require judges to determine that juvenile offenders are beyond rehabilitation before sentencing them to life in prison without parole. The 6-3 vote by the nation's top court is regarded as a dramatic U-turn in its recent trend of reducing harsh punishments for minors.
BREAKING: In 6-3 decision, SCOTUS declines to further limit the ability of states to sentence juveniles to life without parole. The court upholds the sentence of a Mississippi man who killed his grandfather when he was 15; says sentencing procedure did not violate 8th Amendment.— SCOTUSblog (@SCOTUSblog) April 22, 2021
The "argument that the sentencer must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility is inconsistent with the court’s precedents," wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh, one of three ex-president Trump’s Supreme Court nominees key to the ruling, as he voiced the majority's opinion.
Joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, the majority opinion stated that no specific finding concerning the defendant’s maturity or “capacity for change” was required.
"In a case involving an individual who was under 18 when he or she committed a homicide, a State’s discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient," wrote Kavanaugh.
As the Supreme Court's three liberal justices expressed dissent, they deplored the ruling as "gutting" prior cases.
Some1,500 juvenile offenders serving life without patrol sought "the opportunity, at some point in their lives, to show a parole board all they have done to rehabilitate themselves and to ask for a second chance," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor, adding:
"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."
Jones v. Mississippi Case
The decision of the Supreme Court is rooted in case Jones v. Mississippi, No. 18-1259. dating to 2004.
Brett Jones, a Mississippi resident, was charged with stabbing his grandfather to death when he was 15 years old in a dispute over his girlfriend, according to reports. He was convicted of murder sentenced by a judge to life without parole - a mandatory penalty under state law at the time.
SCOTUS just ruled 6-3 to uphold a life sentence in a 2004 case where Brett Jones, a 15-year-old at the time, stabbed his grandpa. Jones alleges it was self-defense but Mississippi gave him a life sentence. 6 conservative justices basically just said minors can never be redeemed. pic.twitter.com/zA1LTVE4y7— Fifty Shades of Whey (@davenewworld_2) April 22, 2021
Jones, currently 31, had pleaded he was not "permanently incorrigible" and should therefore be eligible for parole, yet the court rejected his arguments.
Jones had spent a decade in prison by the time the Supreme Court ruled that offenders like him, who committed crimes when they were minors, could not be automatically sentenced to life terms. Accordingly, he had to be resentenced.
However, the judge again sentenced the man – boasting a record as a model prisoner - to life without parole, while failing to make any finding that Jones was “beyond hope of any rehabilitation”.
Brett Jones' lawyer appealed to the US Supreme Court, contending that should have a chance at parole since he had shown he was capable of rehabilitation.
The new ruling will make it more difficult for offenders like Jones to convince judges that “evidence of rehabilitation is relevant”, Cardozo Law School's Kathryn Miller was quoted as saying by National Public Radio.
Throughout the past years, the Supreme Court has been cutting down on availability of harsh penalties for crimes committed by minors, ostensibly prompted by research showing the brains of juveniles were not fully developed, and they, accordingly, might lack impulse control.
The court sessions in the decisions over the past two decades were often led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018.
In 2005, capital punishment was struck down for those whose crimes were committed before reaching the age of 18. That same year the court barred life-without-parole sentences for juveniles except in cases of murder. In 2012 and 2016 the court again sought to restrict harsh punishments for juvenile offenders.
Deploring the current Supreme Court ruling, Donald Ayer, a former prosecutor and deputy attorney general in Republican administrations, was cited as saying:
"It's like the wind was blowing one way and now it's blowing in the opposite direction," in a reference to the altered makeup of the court.
New Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, while Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018, and was often the deciding vote in cases involving harsh punishments for minors, retired to be replaced by Brett Kavanaugh.