Constitutional Law Criminal Law

SCOTUS Decision on Juveniles is Harsh and Wrong on Many Levels

Where to begin with a discussion on SCOTUS’ 6-3 decision in Jones v. Mississippi that effectively reinstated Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP or LWOP hereafter)? Do I point out that its author Brett Kavanaugh wept crocodile tears before Congress about how mean they were to hold him accountable for actions and indiscretions he did as a beer-loving youth? Do I point out that these alleged “strict constructionists” consistently show a willingness to tear apart precedents when it suits them, while falsely claiming to be holding them up? Do I note that “Elections Matter” and the now Trump-packed Court is ready willing and apparently able to twist and contort prior decisions to meet its desired agenda?

I’ll get to that last one a little further down the article but for now, I’ll let the decision and Judge Sotomayor’s powerful dissent speak for themselves.

First a little history from way back in 2011 and 2016:

The Supreme Court strictly curtailed the imposition of juvenile life without parole in two landmark decisions: 2012’s Miller v. Alabama and 2016’s Montgomery v. Louisiana. In Miller, the court ruled that mandatory sentences of JLWOP—that is, sentences imposed automatically upon conviction—violate the 8th Amendment’s bar on “cruel and unusual punishments.” It explained that children’s crimes often reflect “transient immaturity”; because science has demonstrated that their brains are not fully developed, juvenile offenders are “less culpable” than adults and obviously – just by virtue of their years remaining on the planet – have greater potential for rehabilitation.

In Montgomery, the court clarified that discretionary sentences of JLWOP—that is, sentences imposed at the discretion of a judge—are generally unconstitutional, as well. Finding that Miller was not just a procedural issue but rather provided a substantive right, it then applied Miller and these rules retroactively, allowing all incarcerated people who were condemned to life without parole as children to contest their sentences.

Taken together, Miller and Montgomery held that JLWOP is unconstitutional for “all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” And they prohibited courts from imposing JLWOP unless they found that the defendant’s crime reflected “irreparable corruption.” Prison and criminal justice reform advocates hailed the decisions as long overdue. The love didn’t last that long.

Next, a little history about court packing:

In early 2016, the senate blocks Merrick Garland, citing that the election is nearly only one year away and Neil Gorsuch takes his place. Justice Kennedy resigns suddenly, pushing for his former law clerk Brett Kavanaugh to take his seat and Kavanaugh cries his way through confirmation in 2018; and then in 2020 just ONE WEEK BEFORE ELECTION DAY the Senate pushes through Amy Coney Barrett giving Trump and Mitch McConnell three SCOTUS seats in one term; each one more progressively less-progressive.

Voice of reason: Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Now comes an appalling 6–3 decision in which the Supreme Court effectively reinstated juvenile life without parole by shredding precedents that had sharply limited the sentence in every state. Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s majority opinion rips apart stare decisis while simultaneously pretending to follow precedent. Sotomayor’s powerful dissent is a scolding of the Court, but ultimately does little more than that.

The case at hand:

Brett Jones’ biological father was an alcoholic who physically abused his mother, who had her own serious mental health problems. His stepfather repeatedly physically abused him, using “belts, switches, and a paddle.” He also openly expressed his hatred for Jones.

When he was 11 or 12 years old, Jones began cutting himself so that he “would not feel the panic and the hurt that was inside of [his] head.” He later experienced hallucinations and was prescribed antidepressant medications. When Jones moved to a tiny town in Mississippi to live with his grandparents, he lost access to the prescription medication he took for these mental health issues. Jones’ grandfather also beat him. One day in 2004, when Jones’ grandfather tried to beat him some more after catching Jones’ girlfriend in his bedroom, Jones stabbed him eight times with two kitchen knives, killing him. He had turned 15 just a few weeks earlier. Jones tried to cover up the crime by washing the blood off of him and discarding the knives, but he also tried to save his grandfather with CPR. He then confessed to the police and was charged and convicted of murder.

While incarcerated, Jones earned his GED and sought out work, becoming a “very good employee.” Jones and his prison unit manager often discussed the Bible, and in time, his unit manager came to think of Jones “almost like [a] son.” Jones confided in him that Jones “regretted” what he had done. Jones’ grandmother (the victim’s widow) testified at
Jones’ resentencing hearing and submitted an amicus brief to this Court. She remains “steadfast in her belief that Brett is not and never was irreparably corrupt.” She speaks with Jones weekly, encouraging him as he takes college courses and serves in the prison ministry. Jones’ younger
brother, Marty, and his other family members have also stayed by his side.

Under Mississippi law at the time, murder carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole. The trial judge therefore imposed that sentence. In 2006, the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed. While Jones further appeals were pending, SCOTUS decided Miller, and the case was sent back down for re-sentencing.

At the end of the hearing, the sentencing judge acknowledged that he had discretion under Miller to impose a sentence less than life without parole. But after considering the factors “relevant to the child’s culpability,” (THE CHILD!!) the judge determined that life without parole remained the
appropriate sentence for Jones. But then SCOTUS decided Montgomery.

According to Jones’ lawyers, in order to impose a life-without-parole sentence on a defendant who committed a murder when he or she was under 18, the sentencing judge under Miller and Montgomery must make a separate factual finding that the defendant is “permanently incorrigible.” The Mississippi Court of Appeals rejected Jones’s argument relying on a statement in Montgomery that “‘Miller did not require trial courts to make a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility.’” The appeal went to SCOTUS who granted certiorari.

Majority Opinion – Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Alito, Roberts, Barrett

 Kavanaugh in his decision wrote that these two precedents do not require a judge to “make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility” before imposing JLWOP. Kavanaugh also wrote they do not compel a judge to “at least provide an on-the-record sentencing explanation with an implicit finding of permanent incorrigibility.” Instead, a judge need only be granted “discretion” to sentence a child to less than life without parole. So long as that discretion exists, Kavanaugh held, the 8th Amendment is satisfied—even if the judge provides no indication that they actually considered the defendant’s youth; gauged their potential for rehabilitation; and nonetheless decided their crime reflected “permanent incorrigibility.”

This effectively guts Miller and Montgomery. If a judge can give JLWOP without explaining why in his or her discretion the sentence is fair then what’s the point? What about all the language in those cases that except in the most extreme examples, JLWOP is cruel and unusual? I mean these two cases were only decided in 2011 (Miller) and 2016 (Montgomery). How could this be so quickly reversed? Kavanaugh says because its not reversed – neither case explicitly requires a sentencing court to state the reason why it is giving JLWOP nor require an explicit finding that the juvenile is “permanently incorrigible.” Kavanaugh points out how many youths received reduced sentences following Miller and Montgomery so that the cases are doing their job. He says the majority here is just having “a good-faith disagreement with the dissent over how to interpret Miller and Montgomery.” Tell that to Brett Jones who will now likely spend 70 years in Missouri’s harsh prison system.

Thomas’ Concurrence

Thomas joined the opinion but was at least far more honest that the five justices in the majority. He actually took pains to point out that this decision, while claiming to be in line with Montgomery, in fact overrules it. Thomas noted that if Montgomery did not mean that judges had to make a determination if the juvenile was permanently incorrigible, then it is a meaningless decision. And he is okay with that, but he says the Court should have openly overruled and overturned Montgomery, not try to twist its language and holding to meet this result. He stated:

Montgomery’s creation of a categorical exemption for certain offenders thus leaves us with two obvious options. First, we could follow Montgomery’s logic and hold that the “legality” of Jones’ sentence turns on whether his crime in fact “reflect[s] permanent incorrigibility.” Or we could just acknowledge that Montgomery had no basis in law or the Constitution. The majority, however, selects a third way: Overrule
Montgomery in substance but not in name.

And sure enough, the majority does just that, albeit in a footnote. See ante, at 12, n. 4 (explaining that Montgomery is “in tension” with many other decisions). But
because Montgomery’s freewheeling approach to the law is ripe for abuse, the majority’s whisper is worth restating above the line: Montgomery gave a good-for-one-ride ticket
to a class of juvenile offenders, and its errors will never be repeated.

Dissent: Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan

Sotomayor was not having it and pulled no punches. She expressed the common sense and obvious result of SCOTUS’ ruling in this case. I quote it at length because it provides the clear language in Miller and Montgomery and shows the sham reasoning that this decision represents:

Today, the Court guts Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana. . .
In the Court’s view, a sentencer never need determine, even implicitly, whether a juvenile convicted of homicide is one of “those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.” Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 209. Even if the juvenile’s crime reflects “‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity,’” Miller, 567 U. S., at 479, he can be sentenced to die in prison. This conclusion would come as a shock to the Courts in Miller and Montgomery.

Miller’s essential holding is that “a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest children, those whose crimes reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’” Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 195 (quoting Miller, 567 U. S., at 479–480). Sentencing discretion is “necessary to separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not,” Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 210, but it is far from sufficient. A sentencer must actually “make th[e] judgment” that the juvenile in question is one of those rare children for whom LWOP is a constitutionally permissible sentence. Miller, 567 U. S., at 480. The Court has thus expressly rejected the notion that sentencing discretion, alone, suffices: “Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the Eighth
Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Montgomery, 577 U. S., at 208 (internal quotation marks omitted). Today, however, the Court reduces Miller to a decision requiring “just a discretionary sentencing procedure where youth [is] considered.” . . . Instead, the Court attempts to circumvent stare decisis principles by claiming that “[t]he Court’s decision today carefully follows both Miller and Montgomery.”

The Court is fooling no one.

Next Sotomayor takes apart the key to Kavanaugh’s decision: that Montgomery explicitly stated ‘Miller did not require trial courts to make a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility.’ She points out that Kavanaugh “quietly admits in a footnote,” that Montgomery went on to clarify that the fact “[t]hat Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement does not leave States free to sentence a child whose crime reflects transient immaturity to life without parole. To the contrary, Miller established that this punishment is disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment.”

Sotomayor goes even further, acknowledging that Thomas at least admits he wants to overrule a decision from a few years earlier while the majority “simply rewrites Miller and Montgomery to say what the Court now
wishes they had said, and then denies that it has done any such thing. ”

She goes on:

How low this Court’s respect for stare decisis has sunk.
Not long ago, that doctrine was recognized as a pillar of the “‘rule of law,’” critical to “keep the scale of justice even and steady, and not liable to waver with every new judge’s opinion.”. . . Now, it seems, the Court is willing to overrule precedent without even acknowledging it is doing so, much less providing any special justification.”

Sotomayor acknowledges two facts in her decision: (1) That Jones has done remarkably well in prison proving he is not “permanently incorrigible” and (2) He is now 31 years old, having spent more time in prison than out of it. She concludes by saying:

Jones should know that, despite the Court’s decision today, what he does in life matters. So, too, do the efforts of the almost 1,500 other juvenile offenders like Jones who are serving LWOP sentences. Of course, nothing can repair the damage their crimes caused. But that is not the question.
Having deprived Jones of his constitutional right, the Court gestures
at a potential lifeline from other institutions, including the Mississippi
Legislature or Governor. But “the remote possibility” of such
action “does not mitigate the harshness of the sentence” that Jones now
faces. The Eighth Amendment guarantees juvenile offenders like Jones a basic constitutional protection against disproportionate punishments. The Court should not leave the vindication of such important legal rights to others, or to chance.

The question is whether the State, at some point, must consider whether a juvenile offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation sufficient to merit a chance at life beyond the prison in which he has grown up. For most, the answer is yes.

This decision is not only harsh and wrong under precedent, it sets the tone for SCOTUS to do what it wants when it wants despite previous rulings. In this blog, I have already shown examples of how SCOTUS is already doing that. This latest case however, reverses a case from 2016. What guarantee is there that SCOTUS will adhere to any ruling a majority don’t like? Some states that have followed Montgomery have put fact-finding hearings in line with the decision in place. They no longer have to. States in love with the prison industrial complex and locking up and throwing away the key when it comes to young men of color can now tell judges that they can sentence juveniles to LWOP without any explanation – all they have to do is say they considered the defendant’s age in determining their sentence.

All the progress made under Miller and Montgomery is now undone with this disingenuous and troubling decision. Only time will tell if we will see a rise in JLWOP sentences, but it would be fair to say that is highly likely, especially in the South.

A sad day for justice and a sad day for SCOTUS.

Here’s a link to the decision if you want to read it yourself:

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