Jones v. Mississippi verdict ‘guts’ juvenile justice precedent

On April 22, the Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in the world of juvenile justice. In Jones v. Mississippi, the court ruled 6-3 that judges or juries don’t need to prove that a juvenile offender has “permanent incorrigibility” to sentence them to life without parole.

But once you cut through the legalese, what does that really mean? 

In 2012’s Miller v. Alabama, the Court held that a juvenile’s crime must prove “permanent incorrigibility” and not “transient immaturity.” The latter would, in clearer terms, mean that the offender simply made a mistake. The court ruled similarly in 2016’s Montgomery v. Louisiana. 

In these cases, courts have usually ruled that juveniles are generally “less culpable than adults,” said. Megan Alderden, the head of the Criminology department at DePaul, and that JLWOP “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.”

“The challenge of this particular ruling is that it will make it more difficult for adolescents sentenced to life without parole to seek reprieve,” Alderden said. “In my opinion, this ruling treats young persons as having little rehabilitative potential, the very premise that underlies the existence of the juvenile justice system.”

In Jones v. Mississippi, controversial Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion, saying that “a discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient to impose a sentence of life without parole on a defendant.”

Discretionary sentencing means something is a “fixed rule” based on a set of objective criteria.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan dissented. 

“Today, the Court guts Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana,” Sotomayor said. “Contrary to explicit holdings in both decisions, the majority claims that the Eighth Amendment permits juvenile offenders convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life without parole.”

To Alissa Rivera of the Restore Justice Foundation, an organization which focuses on “extreme sentences imposed on youth” in Illinois, the verdict in Jones v. Mississippi seems to disregard precedent.

“Courts have recognized that the minute you turn 18, you don’t become an adult,” Rivera said. “The brain is developing into the mid-20’s. The parts of the brain that control for risk and that allow people to reason–that is among one of the last parts of the brain to form.”

“Truthfully, on the state level, nothing has changed,” Rivera added. “This is not a red-state blue-state, democratic-republican issue. Twenty-five states and D.C. banned JLWOP. Illinois is really in the minority of states by continuing to have children sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.”

“It is also important that we acknowledge which individuals, families, and communities will be most impacted,” Alderden said. “This decision will disproportionately impact poor, Black and brown individuals, families, and communities as young persons from these communities are much more likely to be subject to these sentencing practices than similarly situated white youth.”

According to the Juvenile Law Center, based in Pennsylvania, “The United States is the only country in the world that permits youth to be sentenced to life without parole. Sentencing children to die in prison is condemned by international law.”

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that approximately 2,570 children in the United States are sentenced to JLWOP.

“The question we should be asking is: ‘Does this make our communities safer, our society more just?’ I would argue that it does neither,” Alderden said. “It fails to acknowledge the ability of humans to change.”

Rivera adds that Jones v. Mississippi “puts the impetus and focus back on the states. States need to look at their systems and decide if they’re fair and decide if they’re moral.”

“When we are sentencing someone under the age of 21 to life in prison, we are doing so before that person can legally buy alcohol, can legally buy cigarettes, can legally rent a car, can legally drive a commercial vehicle across state lines. Yet we are condemning them to die in prison with no chance of review,” Rivera said.

“It is time for states to ban life without parole,” she added.