Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

Razor wire-topped fencing is seen surrounding the Supreme Court of the United States on Monday, February 22, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Razor wire-topped fencing is seen surrounding the Supreme Court of the United States on Monday, February 22, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Justice Advocates Blast 'Dishonest and Barbaric' Majority Opinion by Kavanaugh in Juvenile Life Sentence Case

Sotomayor said the troubling majority opinion was "fooling no one" in a dissent characterized as "extremely powerful."

Jessica Corbett

The impact of former President Donald Trump's three appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court was illuminated on Thursday with a six-three ruling in which the right-wing justices rejected a challenge to life sentences issued to minors—a move that critics described as "vile," "inhumane," and "really awful news."

This case, Jones v. Mississippi, centered on Brett Jones, who fatally stabbed his grandfather in 2004, at age 15, during an argument about the boy's girlfriend. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. His attorneys argued that violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, because the judge did not make a separate finding that he was "permanently incorrigible," or incapable of rehabilitation, which Mississippi allows.

"The United States is a global outlier in its harsh treatment of our youth, especially youth of color who are disproportionately sentenced to life imprisonment," Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate for the Sentencing Project, said in a statement. "Today's ruling emphasizes the urgency for all state legislatures and Congress to eliminate life without parole for people under 18, as 25 states and the District of Columbia have already done."

Although many states have restricted or outlawed life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles, legal experts framed the Thursday decision as "a huge blow against the movement to end" JLWOP. Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote what Mark Joseph Stern, Slate's staff writer covering courts, called the "dishonest and barbaric" majority opinion (pdf).

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by the court's other two left-leaning justices, delivered a "scathing" and "extremely powerful" dissenting opinion. Her dissent, Stern wrote, "pulls no punches in its biting rebuke of Kavanaugh's duplicity and inhumanity. It doubles as an ominous warning that the conservative majority is more than willing to destroy major precedents while falsely claiming to uphold them."

As Stern explained:

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...

On Thursday, Kavanaugh overturned these decisions without admitting it. His majority opinion in Jones v. Mississippi claims fidelity to Miller and Montgomery while stripping them of all meaning. Kavanaugh wrote that these precedents do not require a judge to "make a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility" before imposing JLWOP. Nor, Kavanaugh wrote, do they 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 Eighth 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."

As Sotomayor noted in her extraordinary dissent, "this conclusion would come as a shock to the Courts in Miller and Montgomery." Those decisions explicitly required the judge to "actually make the judgment" that the child is incorrigible. They also "expressly rejected the notion that sentencing discretion, alone, suffices." Kavanaugh claimed that he followed these precedents, Sotomayor wrote, but he "is fooling no one." (Justice Clarence Thomas, writing separately, was more honest than Kavanaugh: He acknowledged that the majority had subverted Montgomery, and supported openly killing it off instead of quietly overruling it while pretending to follow it.)

"Children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing," Sotomayor wrote, referencing studies that have confirmed "juveniles are less mature and responsible than adults." Citing Miller, she added that "juvenile offenders 'must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.'"

Jones' lawyer made the case, according to NPR, that his client "should have at least a chance at parole because he has shown he is capable of rehabilitation—he has earned a high school degree while behind bars and has been a model prisoner."

"Jones should know that, despite the court's decision today, what he does in life matters," wrote Sotomayor. "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."

"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," the dissenting justice concluded. "For most, the answer is yes."

This post has been updated with comment from the Sentencing Project.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Peace Advocates Sound Warnings as Progressive Lawmakers Go All-In for $40 Billion Ukraine War Package

"Russia's invasion of Ukraine must be condemned," says one activist. "But the administration has been telegraphing for weeks that its war aims now go well beyond defending Ukraine."

Brett Wilkins ·

Oklahoma Lawmakers Pass Strictest US Abortion Ban While Roe Still Stands

Reproductive rights supporters vowed to fight against the ban that begins at fertilization and, like legislation in Texas, "creates a bounty-hunting scheme" for enforcement.

Jessica Corbett ·

Judy Blume, Mo Willems Among 1,300 Children's Authors to Condemn 'Wave of Book Suppression'

"Reading stories that reflect the diversity of our world builds empathy and respect for everyone's humanity."

Kenny Stancil ·

Now Do Windfall Tax, Say Climate Groups After Passage of Big Oil Price Gouging Bill

"Voters will reward politicians who stand up for people, not polluters," said one campaigner, "and taxing windfall profits is wildly popular in every part of the country."

Brett Wilkins ·

Ocasio-Cortez: Maloney Should Quit DCCC Post If He Runs Against Mondaire Jones

"It's completely inappropriate" for Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney to be in charge of the House Democrats' campaign arm "if he's going to challenge another member," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo