The Supreme Court Changes Course on Juvenile Justice

The conservative majority in SCOTUS holds devastating implications for juvenile offenders, who will now face a higher chance of being sentenced to life without parole.

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Light falls on the corner of the building of the Supreme Court, where the six conservatives Justices recently handed down a decision that makes it easier to sentence juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole.

Brett Jones is not exactly a sympathetic martyr. 

At 15 years old, Jones killed his grandfather in a brutal murder that prompted a Mississippi judge to sentence him to life in prison without parole. He has been imprisoned for 16 years now; he still has decades left of his sentence to serve.

Most of the Supreme Court cases that concern life sentences for juveniles are much like the case of Brett Jones: a heinous, heartbreaking crime, one that warrants no empathy for the offender. And yet, in spite of this unfortunate fact, these cases are still some of the most crucial that will come before the Court. These cases determine how the United States understands the nature of crimes committed by youth; they determine if the United States will fulfill its Constitutional pledge not to use “cruel and unusual punishment” on anyone, under any circumstance. 

The question at the heart of these SCOTUS decisions is how we punish children who do terrible things. Jones is guilty of a crime for which he deserves punishment. But what kind? And how much? 

In attempting to answer these questions, the Supreme Court has settled a few key cases in the past two decades. In 2005’s Roper v. Simmons, the Court ruled 5-4 that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on people who committed crimes under the age of 18. In another 5-4 vote in 2010, the Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that it was unconstitutional to require life sentences without parole for non-murder crimes committed when offenders were still under 18.

These cases both mitigated the punishments that could be imposed on juvenile offenders, but they specifically excluded youth who had committed murder. Under Graham, teenagers who murdered someone could still be sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole. These offenders could have their only chance at rehabilitation robbed from them, before even receiving a driver’s license or casting their first vote.

Building on the precedents set in Simmons and Graham, the Court ruled in a 2012 case called Miller v. Alabama that even youth who killed someone were not automatically deserving of life in prison without parole. In a 5-4 decision, the Court deemed that mandatory life sentences were unconstitutional for any juvenile offenders, regardless of the severity of the crime. 

The Court expanded on its decision in Miller in a 2016 case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, where it ruled that its previous finding should apply retroactively. After Montgomery, any juvenile offender who had committed murder while under 18 and had been sentenced to life was required to have their sentencing re-considered. It was a ruling that affected over 2,300 cases nationwide.

The decisions made in Miller and Montgomery were based on the idea that juveniles’ brains are less developed than adults, making them less capable of sound and rational decision-making, especially under duress. A paper published in 2020 concluded that the parts of our brains that make people seek out pleasure mature more quickly than the parts of our brains that control our impulses. This lag in development can cause some reckless juveniles to commit thoughtless crimes. Thus, the researchers concluded that it is not until we reach our mid-20s that our brains fully develop our psychosocial maturity. The lack of full development of juveniles’ brains makes it clear why we need to take age into account when deciding if people should languish in prison for the rest of their lives.

Crucially, though, neither Miller nor Montgomery went so far as to outlaw life sentences for juvenile offenders altogether. They only forced states to use discretionary sentencing, meaning that judges were no longer required to impose life sentences and instead had to consider a variety of factors before determining the length of the sentence for a juvenile.

Despite the limitations of Miller and Montgomery, the cases still represented a massive step forward for juvenile justice reform, as they vastly reduced the use of life without parole for children. Miller struck down statutes in 29 states that had mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders. The Marshall Project reported in 2021 that many states saw the amount of youth offenders sentenced to life in prison drop by 40% or more after the Court’s decision. Pennsylvania, for example, had 541 juvenile offenders serving life in prison in 2016, when Montgomery was handed down. Now, the state has only six. 

As the decisions in Miller and Montgomery showed, the Supreme Court had been making slow but steady progress towards encouraging leniency and reducing the harshness of punishments for young prisoners. With every new decision on sentencing laws for juveniles, the nine Justices seemed to indicate their appetite for a drastically different set of rules for criminals under 18. 

This trend shifted dramatically last month, though, when the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Jones v. Mississippi that threatens to undo decades of progress in juvenile justice. The Court’s 6-3 decision — split exactly down partisan lines — centered around Brett Jones’ murder of his grandfather.

In 2016’s Montgomery, the Court had ruled that states were not permitted to automatically require the death penalty for youth offenders, even in murder trials. To ensure that states did not just escape this rule by making life sentences non-mandatory in theory but still pushing for a life or near-life sentence in practice, Montgomery required states to factually demonstrate that any juveniles sentenced to life in prison were “permanently incorrigible.” Judges who wished to impose a life sentence had to justify this decision, by proving that there was something so heinous about the crime or the criminal that it truly required this drastic measure. 

In the April decision in Jones, the Court undid its own rule, finding that states are not required to deem a juvenile offender “permanently incorrigible” before sentencing them to life in prison. While the Court held that states are still required to take into account the age of the prisoner while sentencing them, it overruled the part of Montgomery that actually made this enforceable — in effect, removing the mechanism for accountability.  

Although Jones preserves on paper the Court’s finding that mandatory life sentences for youth prisoners are unconstitutional, in reality it risks overturning this crucial policy. States that want to permanently lock up someone who was under 18 when they committed a crime no longer have to prove why the offender is so deserving of this punishment. 

Although Jones preserves on paper the Court’s finding that mandatory life sentences for youth prisoners are unconstitutional, in reality it risks overturning this crucial policy. States that want to permanently lock up someone who was under 18 when they committed a crime no longer have to prove why the offender is so deserving of this punishment. 

Many students feel passionate about the shift in the Court’s approach to juvenile offenders. “I think that there should be some standard before a teenager gets sent to jail for the rest of their life. Although I think that kids my age are capable of making the right decisions and have responsibility for what they do, it still seems drastic to think of a 14-year-old spending the rest of their life in prison,” said Max Schrader ’21. 

While judges are still not required to impose life sentences for juveniles, they now have the power to do so as they please. And for many justices, what they please is to impose as harsh a life sentence as possible. Ashley Nellis, who works for a judicial organization called the Sentencing Project, said that judges who want to impose life sentences without parole “were waiting for permission to do what they want to do anyway. And now they have it.” 

The actual impact of the new Jones decision is limited by the number of states that already banned life sentences without parole for juveniles. As of May 2021, there are 25 states, plus Washington, D.C. in this category. The larger implications of this decision are still devastating, though. This was one of the first cases involving the juvenile justice system that was heard by the Trump-dominated Supreme Court. Other key decisions on juvenile sentencing were handed down pre-2017, before President Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the bench. The Court’s 6-3 decision to loosen the rules around life sentences without parole demonstrates the judicial body’s powerfully conservative bent. This is a trend that should be greatly worrying for anyone who cares about criminal justice reform. 

Brett Jones will now remain in prison for the rest of his life, thanks to a Supreme Court that chose retribution over rehabilitation, discarding any chance of personal growth. In a cruel twist of fate, the juvenile offender whose sentencing was disputed in Miller v. Alabama — the case that signaled the Court’s embrace of new standards for juvenile offenders — had a new prison sentence announced just days after Jones was handed down. Evan Miller, who was 14 at the time that he and his friend murdered a neighbor, was sentenced to life in prison. He will never be eligible for parole. His wasted life is the legacy of 2021’s Supreme Court.

Although Jones preserves on paper the Court’s finding that mandatory life sentences for youth prisoners are unconstitutional, in reality it risks overturning this crucial policy. States that want to permanently lock up someone who was under 18 when they committed a crime no longer have to prove why the offender is so deserving of this punishment. 

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