Juvenile Offenders’ Fates Under the New Supreme Court

By: Leanna Samson

            Within the Supreme Court’s recent history, it has notably bended its jurisprudence towards juvenile-friendly decisions, such as finding that capital punishment for crimes committed while defendants were under 18 was unconstitutional and ruling a mandatory life sentence without parole should not apply to persons convicted of murder committed as juveniles.[1] However, these strides in juvenile justice were notably led by Justice Anthony Kennedy who retired in 2018.[2] The Supreme Court is now thronged with a set of justices with considerably more conservative views. In addition, with this most recent oral argument hearing regarding juvenile offenders, there is a strong possibility that juvenile jurisprudence may bend a different direction.

            Recently, on Tuesday, November 3rd, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Jones v. Mississippi, of which the petitioner’s writ of certiorari asked the Court whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole.[3] Brett Jones, who was fifteen at the time of his conviction and is now thirty, stabbed his grandfather to death and was convicted of murder, rendering him a life sentence without parole.[4] The County Circuit Court and Court of Appeals subsequently denied his motions for post-conviction relief.[5] The Supreme Court of Mississippi also denied his petition for a writ of certiorari “but did not define whether or not it considered Jones as a “permanently incorrigible” defendant that can be sentenced to life without parole.[6] It considered factors set forth by Miller v. Alabama, on considering whether setting life without parole is unconstitutional, including the offender’s age, family and home environment, circumstances of the homicide, and possibility of rehabilitation.[7]

            The issue then stems from that fact that Montgomery v. Louisiana, another Supreme Court Case that was decided after the Jones Circuit Court’s decision, clarified that life without parole is barred “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Thus, because the Mississippi Supreme Court did not discuss the permanent incorrigibility issue, Jones brought his case in front of the United States Supreme Court to make it clear that the law mandates that courts make this inquiry when analyzing sentencing for juvenile defendants. On the other side, the State asserted that it was enough for judges to take account of the defendant’s youth in general terms to satisfy the Eighth Amendment.

                Mandating this “permanently incorrigible” inquiry onto a sentencing judge is exactly what Jones’ lawyer, David Shapiro, asked of the Supreme Court justices as they asked him questions, some as candid as “what exactly are you looking for?”[8] Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Sotomayor, two justices usually on different ends of the Supreme Court’s ideology square, appeared to be in agreement here that the lower court indeed considered the Miller factors sufficiently enough. However, Shapiro pressed on that the sentencing judge did not consider whether Jones was “incapable of redemption” and that simply assessing the defendant’s youth was not enough.[9] Justice Gorsuch did not even seem open to the idea of retroactively applying Miller as he brought up the rule in Teague v. Lane which asserts the criminal procedure rules, as a general matter, does not apply to cases on collateral review.[10]

            Other Justices voiced their concern that Shapiro’s ask was beyond Eighth Amendment protection. Justice Barrett thought the defendant’s question was not befitting and instead the particular challenge should be whether the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.[11] Justice Alito went expressed his opinion that the Supreme Court’s precedence had already went beyond what the Constitution required and thus, is reluctant to develop it further, which is not surprising as he has largely dissented to the court’s prior ruling with respect to juvenile offenders. Justice Thomas echoed a similar concern that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment does not cover the protection provided by the Court in its recent precedence on the matter.

            However, other justices provided hope for Shapiro. Justice Kagan and Justice Kavanaugh, another set of judges considered on other sides of jurisprudence thinking, both posed similar questions to the State attorney on how Miller could create a substantive requiring a finding of fact that defendant is incorrigible upon sentencing. Further, Justice Breyer flatly stated that permanent incorrigibility is factor required by the sentencing judge to assess and it did not happen here, even stating “end of case”.

            Shapiro ended his argument with explaining to the judge that “magic words” are not necessary here but a sentencing judge must determine whether a child is capable of redemption, and if so, he or she cannot sentence that child to life without parole. On the other side, the State stood firm on its understanding that the sentencing need only look at mitigating circumstances of Jones’s youth and its attendant characteristics, making it easier for youths to be sentenced to a sentence of life without parole.

            Jones and other similarly situated defendants will have to wait until later in the term when the Court decides this case, and in effect, their fate.

            The dissenting judge at the State level for Jones stated that the crime committed indeed was brutal and heinous, and in no way does his opinion that the Constitution prohibits a life without parole sentence take away from it.[12] In fact, the Supreme Court’s previous rulings in Montgomery and Miller assessed similar cases with similar levels of crime. With these cases, the Court recognized that the youth, without appreciation of consequences, act at a level of immaturity different from fully developed adults and as a matter of the Constitution, via the Eighth Amendment, an inquiry of redemption is something to be afforded to them.

            However, if the Court finds that permanent incorrigibility is not a required finding, this effectively diminishes juvenile offenders’ rights significantly with no chance at redemption. This will also signal the Court’s tides are turning away from Justice Kennedy’s legacy in fighting for juvenile justice and into one less forgiving of crimes done at a juvenile age.


[1] Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (striking down death sentences for juveniles); see also Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016) (restricting sentences of life without the possibility of parole).

[2] Mark Joseph Stern, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Juvenile Justice Legacy Is Under Assault in the D.C. Sniper Case, Slate (Mar. 18, 2019) https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/03/dc-sniper-supreme-court-malvo-kennedy-jlwop.html (discussing Justice Kennedy’s efforts to protect juvenile offenders’ Constitutional rights).

[3] Jones v. State, 2019 WL 1453516 (U.S.) (Appellate Petition, Motion and Filing).

[4] Jones v. State, No. 2015-CT-00899-SCT, 2018 WL 10700848, at *1 (Miss. Nov. 27, 2018).

[5] See id. at *3.

[6] See id. at *1.

[7] Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 477 (2012) (stating another factor to consider is whether a lesser charge would have been made if it were not for incompetencies as a youth, such as an inability to deal with police officers).

[8] Amy Howe, Argument analysis: Justices debate requirements for life sentences for juveniles, ScotusBlog (Nov. 3rd, 2020) https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/11/argument-analysis-justices-debate-requirements-for-life-sentences-for-juveniles/.

[9] See id.

[10] Teague v. Lane 489 U.S. 288 (1989).

[11] See Howe, supra  note 8.

[12] Jones v. State, No. 2015-CT-00899-SCT, 2018 WL 10700848, at *12 (Miss. Nov. 27, 2018).