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Supreme Court declines to put new limits on juvenile life-without-parole sentences

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Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday said it would not place new restrictions on sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders, siding with the state of Mississippi in the case of an inmate convicted of murder when he was a teenager. 

The high court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines to uphold the life-without-parole sentence of Brett Jones, who was convicted of killing his grandfather when he was 15. The divided Supreme Court said its rulings in a pair of earlier cases involving juvenile sentencing do not require sentencing judges to determine whether a juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible, or incapable of rehabilitation, before ordering them to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh delivered the opinion on behalf of the court’s conservative justices, writing “Jones’s argument that the sentencer must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility is inconsistent with the court’s precedents” in Miller v. Alabama from 2012 and Montgomery v. Louisiana from 2016.

“The key assumption of both Miller and Montgomery was that discretionary sentencing allows the sentencer to consider the defendant’s youth, and thereby helps ensure that life-without-parole sentences are imposed only in cases where that sentence is appropriate in light of the defendant’s age,” Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. “If the Miller or Montgomery Court wanted to require sentencers to also make a factual finding of permanent incorrigibility, the court easily could have said so— and surely would have said so. But the court did not say that, or anything like it.”

In the Supreme Court’s opinion in Montgomery, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that in light of Miller, in which the high court ruled that children differ from adults in level of culpability, prisoners condemned to life in prison without the possibility of parole “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.”

The ruling from the high court demonstrates the impact of its rightward shift, since the Supreme Court had in recent years placed limits on punishments for offenders who commit crimes when they are under the age of 18. Kennedy and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who were on the court when it issued past rulings on juvenile sentencing, have since been replaced by Kavanaugh and Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Jones, the Mississippi inmate who brought the case, was 15 years old when he was charged with fatally stabbing his grandfather in 2004 and found guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and state courts upheld his sentences.

Jones, however, argued he is capable of rehabilitation and has matured since committing his crime.

In its decision, the Supreme Court said its holding “is far from the last word” on whether Jones will receive relief from his sentence.

“Jones contends that he has maintained a good record in prison and that he is a different person now than he was when he killed his grandfather. He articulates several moral and policy arguments for why he should not be forced to spend the rest of his life in prison,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Our decision allows Jones to present those arguments to the state officials authorized to act on them, such as the state legislature, state courts, or governor. Those state avenues for sentencing relief remain open to Jones, and they will remain open to him for years to come.”

While the court’s conservatives argued they are leaving intact its past rulings on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, said those decisions are gutted.

“Today, the court distorts Miller and Montgomery beyond recognition,” Sotomayor wrote in dissent.



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