The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a life term in prison without parole for a defendant who was 15 when he fatally stabbed his grandfather in Mississippi, ruling that a sentencing judge need not decide that the young person was “permanently incorrigible.”
The 6-3 decision retreats somewhat from a pair of earlier rulings, which said that such life sentences for minors convicted of murder should be extremely rare and limited to cases in which there was no reason to hope the young person could be rehabilitated.
Twenty-five states have abolished life terms with no hope for parole for offenders under 18. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said such prison terms remain shockingly common in parts of the Deep South, particularly for young people of color.
As of last year, “Louisiana had imposed LWOP (Life Without Parole) on an astonishing 57% of eligible juvenile offenders” since 2012, when the court called for restricting such sentences, she said. In 2016, the court gave these inmates a chance to seek a new sentence with possible parole, but the Mississippi courts have rejected one-fourth of such appeals, she said.
“The harm of from these sentences will not fall equally,” Sotomayor added. “The racial disparities in juvenile LWOP sentencing are stark: 70% of all youth sentenced to LWOP are children of color,” she said, citing a study from the Juvenile Law Center.
Five years ago, the court gave new hope to the more than 2,000 inmates who had been sentenced to life terms for crimes they committed as minors. The justices said they had a right to seek a new sentencing hearing and possible parole in the future. But the court’s opinion did not say precisely what judges must consider in deciding such cases.
At issue Thursday was whether the defendant’s life term with no parole should be set aside unless the judges concluded he was “incorrigible” and could not be rehabilitated.
The justices divided along ideological lines, with the six conservatives in the majority and the three liberals in dissent.
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, speaking for the court in Jones vs. Mississippi, said judges are required to weigh the defendant’s age as a mitigating factor before imposing a punishment for a homicide. “The court’s decision today carefully follows” the earlier rulings, which did not prohibit such life terms, he said. Kavanaugh added that the sentencing decision remains in the hands of the judge who heard the case, and the judge need not go further and decide the defendant was beyond redemption.
“Today the court guts” its earlier rulings restricting such life terms, Sotomayor said in a sharp dissent for three liberals. She noted that one of the decisions held that “a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest children, those whose crimes reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’”
The outcome reflects the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kennedy had repeatedly spoken out against harsh punishments for juvenile offenders, and he wrote the court’s ruling that ended capital punishment for them, as well as those that limited the circumstances for imposing life prison terms on those under 18.
Sotomayor said Thursday’s ruling means that even if a “juvenile’s crime reflects ‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity’, he can be sentenced to die in prison,” quoting a passage from Kennedy’s earlier opinion. Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined the dissent.
The case before the court began in 2004 when Brett Jones, age 15, was living with his grandparents Bertis and Madge in a small town in northern Mississippi. He and his grandfather exchanged angry words when it was learned that Brett broke the house rules. The two later fought in the kitchen, and the teenager stabbed his grandfather and fled.
He was convicted of the murder and at the time, state law mandated a sentence of life in prison without parole.
The Supreme Court overturned such mandatory sentences in 2012 and ruled in 2016 inmates may seek a new and lesser sentence. But a judge decided the life term was the proper sentence for Jones, and that decision was upheld by the state courts.
In upholding the sentence, Kavanaugh said such sentencing decisions should remain in the hands of judges who can weigh all the facts. Moreover, “our holding today does not preclude the states from imposing additional sentencing limits in cases involving defendants under 18 convicted of murder,” he said. “States may categorically prohibit life without parole for all offenders under 18. Or states may require sentencers to make extra factual findings before sentencing an offender under 18 to life without parole.”