Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Life Imprisonment Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders: An Analysis of Jones v. Mississippi

In Jones v. Mississippi, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a 6-3 margin that a sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a fifteen-year-old juvenile who was convicted of murder did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.[1] The Court’s decision will likely engender criticism because it is arguably inconsistent with the Court’s precedents.

By way of background, in Roper v. Simmons, the Court held that it was unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes that an individual committed while under the age of eighteen.[2] In so holding, the Court emphasized that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed and, as such, juveniles lack the maturity of adults and often engage in impulsive conduct that reflects a failure to appreciate the consequences of particular actions. For these reasons, juveniles are less culpable than adults and therefore not among the narrow category of offenders for whom the death penalty is warranted. Additionally, in Miller v. Alabama, the Court relied in substantial part on the differences between juveniles and adults to hold that laws authorizing mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders convicted of murder violated the Eighth Amendment.[3] The Court emphasized that a juvenile’s crime often reflects “unfortunate but transient immaturity,” and that a sentence of life without parole should be reserved for a narrow category of juvenile offenders “whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption” or “permanent incorrigibility.”[4] Accordingly, imprisonment for life “is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest children.”[5] And in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court held that the rule announced in Miller applied retroactively to juveniles previously sentenced to life without parole, thus requiring re-sentencing for these offenders.[6] Finally, in Graham v. Florida, the Court held that sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses violated the Eighth Amendment.[7]

The Court’s decisions in Miller and Montgomery arguably require that, before a juvenile can be sentenced to life without parole, a court must determine whether a juvenile’s crime reflects “unfortunate yet transient immaturity,” therefore precluding a sentence of life without parole, or “irreparable corruption” (permanent incorrigibility), thus justifying the imposition of such a sentence.[8]

In Jones, the Court’s decision, although not technically inconsistent with Miller and Montgomery, certainly appears at odds with the spirit and purpose underlying these decisions.[9] Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that Miller only prohibited the imposition of mandatory sentences of life without parole for individuals who were minors when the crime was committed. In Jones, however, the trial court had the discretion to impose a lesser sentence on the defendant – who was fifteen at the time of the crime – and thus did not violate Miller by exercising that discretion to impose a sentence of life without parole. Furthermore, because Graham v. Florida only prevented the imposition of life without parole for non-homicide offenses, it violated neither Miller nor Graham to impose a discretionary sentence of life without parole for a homicide offense.[10] Furthermore, Justice Kavanaugh stated that, when exercising such discretion, a trial court is not required to determine whether a juvenile’s crime reflected “transient immaturity” or “irreparable corruption,” the very distinction upon which Miller relied to identify the narrow category of juvenile offenders for whom life imprisonment without parole could be justified.[11] Rather, it suffices that a court has the discretion to consider youth as a mitigating factor – even in the absence of a record showing that the court considered this issue to a meaningful degree.[12]

The Court’s decision in Jones appears inconsistent with Miller and Montgomery and casts doubt upon their continued viability. First, if a sentence of life without parole should be, as the Court stated in Miller, reserved for a narrow category of juveniles who demonstrate irreparable corruption (or permanent incorrigibility), it seems logical and constitutionally necessary for courts to determine at sentencing that a juvenile falls within this narrow category. Holding that a sentence of life without parole is permissible simply because the lower court had the discretion to impose a lesser sentence – even if the court did not meaningfully exercise this discretion as Miller and Montgomery contemplate – eviscerates the precedential value of these decisions.

Second, as the Court in Roper, Miller, and Montgomery recognized, juveniles lack fully developed brains and the capacity to act with the same degree of maturity as adults. For that reason, only juveniles whose conduct reflects “irreparable corruption” may be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Unfortunately, by refusing to require a finding that a juvenile falls into this narrow category, the Court’s holding in Jones eviscerates the distinction between juveniles whose actions reflect “transient immaturity” and those whose actions reflect “irreparable corruption.” And Jones arguably undermines, at least to a degree, the distinction previously recognized by the Court between juvenile and adult culpability. After all, in Roper and Miller, the Court relied on the differences between juveniles and adults regarding brain development, maturity, and rational decision-making to hold that juveniles are less culpable for even the most serious crimes. After Jones, the Court appears willing to relegate decisions regarding culpability to courts who have the “discretion” to impose lesser sentences while imposing no requirements on how courts exercise this discretion.  

Put simply, Jones cannot be reconciled with the Court’s prior jurisprudence, suggesting yet again that stare decisis is a doctrine of convenience rather than conviction. Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts, despite pledging fidelity to stare decisis in June Medical Services v. Gee, where he voted to invalidate a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges, joined the majority in Jones and appears to have an on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis.[13] And given that Roberts seems to care more about public perceptions of the Court rather than constitutional law, his decision to inconsistently apply the doctrine is surprising because it undermines the very institutional legitimacy he strives to preserve.

Third, the Court failed to address the concern that permitting a judge to consider youth as a mitigating factor violates precedent holding that the Sixth Amendment requires juries, not judges, to make such factual findings, particularly where they may result in an increased sentence.

Ultimately, the Court’s decision in Jones confuses, rather than clarifies, the law regarding whether, and under what circumstances, juveniles can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. And by countenancing such sentences simply because a court has the discretion to impose a lower sentence – without any requirement that a court determine that a juvenile’s actions reflect irreparable corruption – the Court turned a blind eye to the risk that sentencing in this area will become arbitrary and unfair.

The decision was a mistake.

 

[1] 593 U.S.              (2021), available at: 18-1259 Jones v. Mississippi (04/22/2021) (supremecourt.gov)

[2] 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[3] 567 U.S. 460 (2012).

[4] Miller, 567 U. S., at 479; Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 209.

[5] Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 195.

[6] 577 U.S.             , 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016).

[7] 560 U. S. 48 (2010)

[8] Miller, 567 U. S., at 479; Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 209.

[9] 593 U.S.              (2021), available at: 18-1259 Jones v. Mississippi (04/22/2021) (supremecourt.gov)

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] See id.

[13] 591 U.S.            (2020), 2020 WL 3492640.

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