Juvenile Life Sentences Upheld per Supreme Court Ruling




In a ruling that broke down along ideological lines, the United States Supreme Court declined to impose limits on sentences given to individuals who were convicted of crimes as a juvenile. The sentences - given to a Mississippi youth who was convicted of killing his grandmother at the age of 15, means that states can now pursue life sentences against juveniles who are convicted of crimes.


The Case


The specifics of this case involved Brett Jones. Jones, from Mississippi, was convicted of stabbing his grandmother to death at the age of 15, and given a life sentence, without any chance of parole. Advocates for Jones argued that the rulings in two Court cases - specifically Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana - meant that the Judge who sentences Jones had issued an illegal ruling since he had failed to note that Jones was incapable of ever rehabilitating himself, a requirement of a life without parole sentence.


That argument was rejected 6-3.


The Opinions


Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh rejected the argument that any judge make such a determination before issuing their opinion. All that a Judge had to do before issuing this sentence was determine if the youth of a defendant was a mitigating factor - something that the Judge in the Miller case had done. In his opinion, Kavanaugh went on to interpret the Miller and Montgomery rulings as allowing life without parole sentence in the event that certain factors were met. He also found that both of these cases did allow for a life without parole sentence if a Judge felt that was appropriate, provided that a defendant's youth was considered as part of the sentencing. Justice Kavanaugh went out of his way to note that his ruling was not on the Jones case specifically, but that as long as youth was considered, any similar sentence was a just and legal one. 


In the dissent, written by Justice Sotomayor, disagreed on all fronts with Kavanaugh. She accused the majority of twisting the meaning of both the Miller and Montgomery cases, arguing that both of those cases did, in fact, create a requirement to consider a youth's rehabilitation before making a sentence. In failing to do that, the Jones sentence was an unjust one. 


The Practical Impact


The ruling essentially makes it so that youth can be sent to jail - for life, and without parole - for their crimes, without the possibility of rehabilitation being considered as part of any such sentence. This means that a youth who has been convicted of a serious crime that would warrant a lifetime sentence can be sentenced to the same time in jail - even without the possibility of parole - and that any rehabilitative potential does not have to be considered. 


There was little agreement between the two sides about the practical effect of this ruling. Justice Kavanaugh argued that the ruling meant a simple reclarification of the Miller and Montgomery cases, while Justice Sotomayor argued that this was a serious reinterpretation of those two cases, if not an outright overruling of them.


The one thing that did seem clear is that the ruling made it more likely and easier for youth to be sentenced to a lifetime of jail with no chance of parole. Advocates against such sentences were heartbroken by such rulings, finding that they would lead to an increased prison burden and less of an emphasis on rehabilitating individuals who have been sentenced to jail for an extended period of time. The case did clearly represent a reimagining of the Miller and Montgomery decisions and seemed to indicate that the Supreme Court is shifting further to the right on a series of issues, including criminal justice reform. It has, as such, made many advocates question what comes next for the court, and if this is the direction they will continue to take on so-called "law and order" cases. Court observers also noted that the "sharply worded" nature of the opinions - and particularly, Justice Sotomayor's - seemed to highlight significant tensions and ideological differences behind the scenes. Opinions like these showed those tensions coming to the surface, and appear to be a harbinger of things to come for the court. 





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