April brought a one-two punch for juveniles.
Punch One: Jones v. Mississippi (April 2021)
For the last 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a string of decisions limiting the most severe sentences for children. The Court abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders. It prohibited life without parole (LWOP) in cases that did not involve a homicide. And then the Court also rejected, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the mandatory application of LWOP to juvenile offenders, even in homicide cases. The Court’s decisions were based on well-established principles in neuroscience that showed the still-developing brains of juveniles are notable for their “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” The Court also noted that juveniles have great potential for change.
Miller led to a slew of re-sentencing hearings around the country, where juvenile offenders who had been sentenced to LWOP had an opportunity to demonstrate why a permanent and irrevocable prison sentence was unwarranted in their individual cases.
Brett Jones was just 15 when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to LWOP. At his Miller resentencing hearing, Jones presented evidence of real change. While in prison, Jones obtained his high school diploma and had been a model prisoner. As Jones poignantly explained to the re-sentencing court:
“I’m not the same person I was when I was 15. . . . I’ve become a pretty decent person in life. And I’ve pretty much taken every avenue that I could possibly take in prison to rehabilitate myself…Minors do have the ability to change… if you decide to send me back without the possibility of parole, I will still do exactly what I’ve been doing for ten years. But all I can do is ask you . . . please give me just one chance to show the world, man, like, I can be somebody. I’ve done everything I could over the past ten years to be somebody. . . . I can’t change what was already done. I can just try to show. . . I’ve become a grown man.”
The re-sentencing judge nonetheless again sentenced Jones to LWOP, without a finding that Jones was incorrigible and had no hope of rehabilitation.
In Jones v. Mississippi, the newly reconstituted U.S. Supreme Court, with the addition of its three Trump appointees, was asked to consider whether the sentencing judge erred. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the 6-3 conservative majority, retreated from its twenty-year trend away from juvenile LWOP. Instead, the Court upheld Jones’ sentence, ruling that judges need not make a finding of “permanent incorrigibility” before sentencing a juvenile to LWOP.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor called out the Court’s majority decision as an “abrupt break from precedent,” adding the majority “is fooling no one.”
The Court’s latest ruling certainly makes it harder for people serving juvenile LWOP sentences to prove that they deserve at least the possibility of release.
Punch Two: Evan Miller’s Resentencing
The Miller v. Alabama decision, which created resentencing hearings for juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole, involved the case of a young boy named Evan Miller. Miller was 14 when he committed murder and was sentenced to LWOP.
Miller finally had his own resentencing hearing. Although the Alabama judge acknowledged Miller’s abusive childhood and Miller’s ongoing success in prison, he nonetheless homed in on Miller’s crime of murder and resentenced Miller, again, to LWOP.
Miller will serve the rest of his life in prison with no possibility of release.
Not a KO: Final Thoughts
Although children can commit terrible crimes, and they can cause tremendous harm, they also have great potential for change.
Life without parole negates that potential because LWOP offers no possibility — ever –of release. It denies all hope and fails to recognize that children are different than adults. It fails to consider that our criminal legal system should offer an opportunity for rehabilitation and redemption, particularly for the youngest offenders amongst us. Children deserve the chance to show that they are more than the worst thing they have ever done and that they have truly and profoundly changed in ways that would allow them to safely reenter society.
The United States is the only country in the world to allow juveniles to be sentenced to LWOP. And twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have abolished life without parole for juveniles. With twenty-five states still in play (with nine, Jones v. Mississippi was a blow to efforts to end juvenile LWOP, but it wasn’t a knock-out.
If the new members of the Supreme Court won’t ban juvenile LWOP, then legislators in the remaining states and in the federal government need to do it for them. LWOP for juveniles should be ended once and for all.