The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Thursday that “a judge need not make a finding of ‘permanent incorrigibility’ before sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole,” NPR reports.
At the center of the case was Brett Jones, who was 15 when he stabbed his grandfather to death during an argument about Jones’ girlfriend. He was convicted of murder, and a judge sentenced him to life without parole.
“In such a case, a discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient,” the court’s conservative justices wrote.
Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said: “As this case again demonstrates, any homicide, and particularly a homicide committed by an individual under 18, is a horrific tragedy for all involved and for all affected.”
He added: “Determining the proper sentence in such a case raises profound questions of morality and social policy. The States, not the federal courts, make those broad moral and policy judgments in the first instance when enacting their sentencing laws. And state sentencing judges and juries then determine the proper sentence in individual cases in light of the facts and circumstances of the offense, and the background of the offender.”
Laws on sentencing juveniles have changed significantly over the past two decades, NPR noted.
The Supreme Court — primed by research that shows the brains of juveniles are not fully developed, and that they are likely to lack impulse control — has issued a half dozen opinions holding that juveniles are less culpable than adults for their acts. And the court has also ruled that some of the harshest punishments for acts committed by children are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.
After striking down the death penalty for juvenile offenders, the court, in a series of decisions, limited life without parole sentences to the rarest cases — those juvenile offenders convicted of murder who are so incorrigible that there is no hope for their rehabilitation.
According to the report, “The Jones case involved how to apply the prior Supreme Court rulings.”
Close to a decade after Jones was sentenced to life without parole, the Supreme Court ruled that those, like Jones, who committed crimes when they were minors could not be automatically sentenced to life terms. Because Jones had been one of those who had received such an automatic life without parole sentence, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered him to be resentenced. The judge did that, considering Jones’ youth at the time of the crime, but again sentenced him to life without parole. The judge did not make any finding that Jones was so incorrigible that he had no hope of rehabilitation.
Mississippi is among a handful of states that allow a life without parole sentence for juvenile crimes without requiring a finding of “permanent incorrigibility.”
In a withering dissent Thursday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor used language from Justice Kavanaugh’s past opinions to write that the court’s decision was “an abrupt break from precedent.” She said the court was attempting to “circumvent” legal precedent and “is fooling no one.”
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