Finding of Permanent Incorrigibility Not Required to Impose Life Sentence on Juvenile

In Jones v. Mississippi, 593 U.S. ____ (2021), the U.S. Supreme Court again clarified when juveniles can receive life sentences. By a vote of 6-3, the Court held that the Eighth Amendment does not take a sentencer to discover that a juvenile is indefinitely incorrigible prior to imposing a sentence of life without parole.

Facts of this Case

Jones had been 15 years old when he committed the crime. Under Mississippi law in the moment, murder carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole. The trial judge duly imposed that sentence, that had been affirmed on direct appeal.

The Supreme Court subsequently decided Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), that held that the Eighth Amendment allows a life-without-parole sentence for a defendant who committed a homicide if he or she was under 18, however only as long as the sentence isn’t compulsory and the sentencer consequently has discretion to impose a lesser penalty. In the aftermath of that decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered that Jones be resentenced in accordance with Miller.

In the resentencing, the sentencing judge acknowledged that he had discretion under Miller to impose a sentence less than life without parole. The judge decided, however, that life with no parole stayed the proper sentence for Jones. Jones again appealed his sentenceciting both Miller and the then-recently chose case of Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016), that maintained that Miller applied retroactively on collateral review. Jones contended that, under Miller and Montgomery, a sentencer must make a separate factual finding that a murderer under 18 is permanently incorrigible until sentencing the offender to life with no parole. The Mississippi Court of Appeals rejected Jones’s argument.

Supreme Court’s Conclusion

The Supreme Court confirmed, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh writing on behalf of this Court. The Court maintained that its precedents set forth in Miller and Montgomery don’t require the sentencer to create a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility prior to sentencing the defendant to life without parole. It further found , in such a case, a discretionary sentencing system is equally constitutionally required and constitutionally adequate.

Jones’s argument that the sentencer must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility is inconsistent with the Court’s precedents. In Miller, the Court mandated”only that a sentencer follow a particular procedure –contemplating an offender’s youth and attendant traits –before imposing” a life-without-parole sentence. And at Montgomery v. Louisiana, that held

That Miller applies retroactively on collateral review, the Court flatly said that”Miller didn’t impose an official factfinding condition” and added that”a finding of facts about a child’s incorrigibility… isn’t required.” In light of the explicit language in the Court’s earlier decisions, we must reject Jones’s argument.

In reaching its decision, the Court highlighted that Miller and Montgomery require consideration of an offender’s youth but not any specific factual finding. The Court also rejected the argument that a sentencer offer an on-the-record sentencing explanation with an”proposed finding” of permanent incorrigibility prior to sentencing a murderer under 18 to life with no parole. An on-the-record sentencing justification is required by nor consistent with Miller or Montgomery, Justice Kavanaugh noted, adding that neither case says anything concerning a sentencing explanation.

Ultimately, Justice Kavanaugh highlighted that the Court’s ruling shouldn’t be interpreted to disturb its own conclusions in Miller or Montgomery. “Miller maintained that a State may not impose a compulsory life-without-parole sentence on a murderer under 18. Today’s decision doesn’t disturb that carrying,” he wrote. “Montgomery later held that Miller applies retroactively on collateral review. Today’s decision also doesn’t disturb that “

Justice Kavanaugh also highlighted that the Court’s decision shouldn’t be construed as agreement or disagreement with Jones’s sentence. Furthermore, it does preclude Jones by presenting his ethical and policy arguments against his life-without-parole sentence to the state officers that are authorized to act on these arguments.
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