The court ruled on Thursday that a judge does not need to find that a person under 18 who commits murder is “permanently incorrigible” before sentencing them to life in prison without parole. In other words, the court approved life without parole sentences for juveniles even if the facts of the case indicate the crime was a result of youthful immaturity and impulsiveness that the individual is likely to outgrow.
“Time and again, this Court has recognized that ‘children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,’” Sotomayor continued. “Juvenile offenders ‘cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders’ for several reasons. First, ‘as any parent knows,’ and as scientific and sociological studies have confirmed, juveniles are less mature and responsible than adults, which ‘often result[s] in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.’”
The Miller and Montgomery decisions prompted a wave of people facing life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as kids to argue in court that their sentences were unconstitutional and seek resentencing under the new standards. One of those people was Brett Jones, who in 2005 received a mandatory sentence of life without parole for killing his grandfather when he was 15.
“The issue is nationally important: Without a requirement to find permanent incorrigibility before imposing life without parole, the command of Miller and Montgomery to restrict the sentence to rare, permanently incorrigible juveniles loses its force as a rule of law,” Jones’ lawyers continued.
Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh claimed that the Miller and Montgomery decisions did not require a court to make a decision about whether a juvenile is rehabilitatable in order to sentence them to life without parole. “Montgomery then flatly stated ‘Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement’ and that ‘a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility … is not required,’” Kavanaugh wrote.
But Kavanaugh’s argument, pieced together through selective phrases from court precedents, is undermined in his own footnotes. The full paragraph he cites from the Montgomery decision makes clear that the court interpreted life without parole as a cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles whose crimes reflect a temporary state of immaturity (bolded to indicate the phrases Kavanaugh pieced together out of context):
Even one of Kavanaugh’s conservative allies on the court appeared to recognize the “strained reading” of court precedent required to reach Kavanaugh’s conclusion. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas admitted that the majority had undermined Montgomery — but said that decision was an error that should be rejected.
The Thursday ruling does not address whether Jones’ life without parole sentence is constitutional — but it does make it harder for other people facing extreme sentences for crimes they committed in their youth to get relief, particularly those who live in states that have juvenile life without parole on the books. The extreme punishment of youth is a problem that disproportionately impacts Black and brown kids, Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, noting that 70% of all juvenile life without parole sentences are to people of color. Even as the number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole has decreased, the racial disparity has increased, Sotomayor noted.
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