The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences are unconstitutional for defendants who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes. Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court made clear that Miller’s ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences applies retroactively to convictions that had become final before Miller was decided. After Miller and Montgomery, state courts can sentence individual juveniles to life without the possibility of parole as long as the sentence is not a mandatory penalty under state law. On Tuesday, the justices will hear oral argument in a case that asks them to decide what their rulings in Miller and Montgomery require states to do before imposing that sentence. A Mississippi man contends that the sentencer must find that the juvenile is incapable of rehabilitation, while the state counters that it is enough that the sentencer considered the juvenile’s youth.
The question comes to the court in the case of Brett Jones, who was 15 years old in 2004, when he stabbed his grandfather to death during an argument about Jones’ girlfriend. Jones was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole.
After the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller, but before its decision in Montgomery, the Mississippi Supreme Court sent Jones’ case back to the trial court for resentencing in light of Miller. The state again argued for life without parole, and the court agreed. State courts upheld that ruling.
Jones appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in March of 2019, but the justices put his case on hold while they considered a similar issue in the case of Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the so-called “D.C. snipers.” The justices dismissed Malvo’s case on Feb. 26, after Virginia, where Malvo is in prison, passed a new law that makes juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison eligible for parole once they have served 26 years. The court then agreed to take up Jones’ case a few weeks later.
Jones, who is now in his thirties, argued in his brief on the merits that his case can be “easily resolved” under Miller and Montgomery, which collectively established that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder unless their crimes indicate that there is no hope for rehabilitation.
The court’s decision in Miller, Jones reasoned, was the product of two different lines of cases. The first line established categorical bans on punishment on the theory that the punishment is not appropriate for a particular group of defendants – for example, prohibiting the death penalty for juvenile offenders and for offenses other than murder. A second line of cases requires defendants facing serious penalties to have an individualized sentencing procedure. The result, Jones concluded, was that courts are required to expressly determine whether, as the court explained in Montgomery, a juvenile defendant convicted of murder is one of “the rarest of juvenile offenders … whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” States have some leeway in how that decision is made, Jones conceded, but he stressed that they nonetheless have to make it.
In Jones’ case, he contended, the state courts “refused to make this essential determination.” At his resentencing hearing, Jones emphasized, he “presented substantial evidence” that he could be rehabilitated. For example, a corrections officer testified that Jones was a “good kid” who “got along with everybody” and had earned his GED. But courts didn’t consider that claim, and simply considering his youth is not enough, in the same way that it isn’t enough to discuss someone’s mental health or intellectual disability.
Jones told the justices that at the very least, they should send the case back to the Mississippi state courts for them to determine whether Jones “is the rare, permanently incorrigible juvenile homicide offender who may be sentenced to life without parole.” But because the only conclusion in this case is that Jones became “a committed worker and model inmate” who is capable of rehabilitation, and the state has not even tried to argue otherwise, Jones continued, the more appropriate path would be for the Supreme Court to go ahead and rule that Jones is not eligible for a life-without-parole sentence.
In its brief on the merits, the state denied that Miller and Montgomery established anything like the rule that Jones has suggested they established. In those cases, the state declared, the sentencers did not have any discretion at all: Both defendants had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole under a mandatory scheme. So, the state contended, although Miller struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences, it did not suggest that discretionary life-without-parole sentences were unconstitutional.
Because Miller didn’t establish a rule barring discretionary life-without-parole sentences, the state continued, Montgomery can’t help Jones because the Supreme Court doesn’t announce new rules in cases in which direct review has already finished. Indeed, the state observed, Henry Montgomery never asked the Supreme Court to expand on Miller – the only question was whether Miller’s holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentencing schemes are unconstitutional for juveniles applies retroactively to cases in which direct appeals were already final.
The Eighth Amendment, the state wrote, does not require a finding that a juvenile is incapable of rehabilitation before sentencing him to life without parole. What the Eighth Amendment requires, the state contended, is for a sentencer to “consider the mitigating circumstances of youth before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole.” Under the rule that Jones proposes, the state complained, the sentencer would be required to use “magic words” or else wind up having to litigate whether the sentencer had in fact found that the defendant is incapable of rehabilitation. Such a requirement, the state argued, “would be an extraordinary burden on States — all while this Court assured States in Montgomery that retroactively implementing Miller’s rule would not impose an onerous burden.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court, the state noted, has directed sentencing courts to consider factors like the juvenile’s immaturity, failure to appreciate risks and consequences, the family and home environment, the defendant’s role in the homicide, and the possibility for rehabilitation. And so, on resentencing, the state reasoned, the trial court gave Jones a chance to introduce evidence, and the judge considered “age and age-related factors” – precisely what the Constitution requires.
A decision in the case is expected sometime next year.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.