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Supreme Court rules against juvenile sentenced to life without parole

(Will Dunham/Reuters)

The Supreme Court on Thursday reversed its recent movement toward leniency for minors convicted of serious crimes and instead said judges need not specifically find a juvenile murderer beyond rehabilitation before sentencing him to a lifetime in prison.

Former president Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees were key to the 6-to-3 ruling, which was written by one of them, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

The “argument that the sentencer must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility is inconsistent with the court’s precedents,” Kavanaugh wrote. The court upheld the life-without-parole sentence a Mississippi court imposed on a 15-year-old who stabbed his grandfather to death in a dispute over the boy’s girlfriend.

All that is constitutionally required is for the judge to have discretion and consider the defendant’s youth, Kavanaugh wrote.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor replied in a biting dissent that the decision will mean “far too many juvenile offenders will be sentenced to die in prison.”

Limiting that punishment only to those beyond redemption was the very point of the court’s previous rulings, she wrote, arguing the majority undermined those decisions without acknowledging the change.

“Such an abrupt break from precedent demands ‘special justification,’ ” Sotomayor wrote, taking the words from a Kavanaugh opinion written last term. Because the majority did not provide one, she wrote, “the Court is fooling no one.”

Supreme Court debates what a judge must find before sentencing a juvenile to life in prison

The case could be representative of changes the court’s fortified conservative majority will make now that Trump’s nominees fill seats once held by a moderate and a liberal justice.

Kavanaugh in 2018 replaced Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who had played a key role in the rulings on juvenile offenders. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the majority in all of the decisions that granted more leniency, and her spot on the court has been filled by conservative Amy Coney Barrett.

In those previous decisions, when it contemplated how the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment applies to juveniles, the court’s movement had been in one direction.

In 2005, the court ended capital punishment for those whose crimes were committed before age 18. In 2010, it barred life without parole in non-homicide crimes.

In 2012, it forbade mandatory life-without-parole sentences even for murder, in Miller v. Alabama. And four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court said those sentenced under the old rules could challenge their permanent imprisonment.

Supreme Court says states may not impose mandatory life sentences on juvenile murderers

That decision said life without parole should be reserved for “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

That meant Brett Jones, the now-31-year-old Mississippian at the center of the case, deserved a new sentencing hearing for the 2004 murder of his grandfather.

But Kavanaugh said it was enough that the state’s allowance of life without parole for a juvenile was discretionary and that the judge took Jones’s youth into consideration.

In Miller, Kavanaugh wrote, "the Court mandated 'only that a sentencer follow a certain process — considering an offender's youth and attendant characteristics — before imposing' a life-without-parole sentence."

And in Montgomery, Kavanaugh wrote, "the Court flatly stated that 'Miller did not impose a formal fact-finding requirement' and added that 'a finding of fact regarding a child's incorrigibility . . . is not required.' "

Supreme Court: Life sentences on juveniles open for later reviews

Kavanaugh downplayed Sotomayor's fiery dissent as reflecting "simply . . . a good-faith disagreement" over "how to interpret relevant precedents."

"The dissent thinks that we are unduly narrowing Miller and Montgomery," Kavanaugh wrote. "And we, by contrast, think that the dissent would unduly broaden those decisions."

Besides Barrett, Kavanaugh was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch.

Sotomayor was not appeased. She said the majority decision ignores the key holding of the cases — that life without parole should be extremely rare — and violates stare decisis, the court's general rule of upholding precedent.

"The Court simply rewrites Miller and Montgomery to say what the Court now wishes they had said, and then denies that it has done any such thing," wrote Sotomayor, who was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan, who wrote the court's decision in Miller.

"How low this Court's respect for stare decisis has sunk," Sotomayor wrote.

Kavanaugh and Sotomayor also sparred over the consequences of the court's decisions in Miller and Montgomery.

"Miller's discretionary sentencing procedure has resulted in numerous sentences less than life without parole for defendants who otherwise would have received mandatory life-without-parole sentences," Kavanaugh wrote.

He cited a report that said a majority of states have abandoned life-without-parole sentences in concluding that "a discretionary sentencing procedure has indeed helped make life-without-parole sentences for offenders under 18 'relatively rar[e].' "

Moreover, he said, more states are free to get rid of life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences or require the kinds of specific findings of permanent incorrigibility that the dissenters desire.

Sotomayor responded that since the court required new sentencings for juveniles, "more than a quarter of Mississippi's resentencings have resulted in the reimposition of LWOP," while the rate was an "astonishing" 57 percent in Louisiana.

Additionally, she said: "The harm from these sentences will not fall equally. The racial disparities in juvenile LWOP sentencing are stark: 70 percent of all youths sentenced to LWOP are children of color."

Sotomayor also sketched out Jones's life story: His father abused his mother, and then his violent stepfather told Jones he would kick his mother and brother out of the house if he did not leave. His grandparents picked up the then-14-year-old just two months before the murder and brought him to Mississippi, where he lost access to the drugs he took for mental health issues.

His grandmother testified on his behalf at his resentencing.

Kavanaugh acknowledged that Jones "articulates several moral and policy arguments for why he should not be forced to spend the rest of his life in prison."

He added, "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."

The case is Jones v. Mississippi.