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."
Kavanaugh wrote the SCOTUS opinion holding that juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole. It’s an evil world we live in
— Olayemi Olurin (@msolurin) April 22, 2021
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."
Today's decision is pretty much the worst case scenario for opponents of juvenile life without parole (myself included). The court has abandoned precedent protecting juvenile defendants without admitting it. This decision will ensure that more JLWOP defendants die behind bars.
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) April 22, 2021
As Stern explained:
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."
Kavanaugh with his now classic "I'm a total asshole but I don't like people calling me an asshole so I'm going to add some language about how sorry I am to be acting like an asshole" opinion.
— Elie Mystal (@ElieNYC) April 22, 2021
"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.