By Lisa Soronen
In Jones v. Mississippi the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is “permanently incorrigible” before imposing a sentence of life without parole.
In Miller v. Alabama (2012) the court held that the Eighth Amendment bars life-without-parole sentences “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” In Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) the court held that Miller applies retroactively to sentences issued before 2012.
In 2004, Brett Jones, then 15, killed his grandfather. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. After Miller was decided a trial court resentenced Jones to life in prison without parole. The Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that the trial court didn’t discuss “each and every Miller factor, [but] the judge expressly said he had considered each factor.” Miller factors refer to mitigating circumstances. The Mississippi Supreme Court, without an opinion and over a dissent, didn’t review the Mississippi Court of Appeals decision.
Jones points out that the trial court did not find that he was “permanently incorrigible, nor did it acknowledge that only permanently incorrigible juvenile homicide offenders may be sentenced to life without parole.”
The disagreement in this case over whether the sentencing authority must make a finding of “permanently incorrigible” comes down to a dispute over different language in the Supreme Court’s Montgomery opinion.
Jones argues the sentencing authority must make a finding pointing to language in Montgomery stating that the sentencing authority must “separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not.” Jones also argues “even the dissent in Montgomery stated that the majority opinion required sentencing authorities to ‘resolve’ the question of incorrigibility.”
Mississippi claims that the following language in Montgomery makes clear the sentencing authority doesn’t have to make a finding of permanent incorrigibility: “Louisiana suggests that Miller cannot have made a constitutional distinction between children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity and those whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption because Miller did not require trial courts to make a finding of fact regarding a child's incorrigibility. That this finding is not required, however, speaks only to the degree of procedure Miller mandated in order to implement its substantive guarantee.”
Jones argues the above language is dictum, meaning not essential to the court’s holding in the case. According to Jones: “The argument ‘[t]hat this finding is not required,’ the [Supreme] Court explained, would ‘speak only to the degree of procedure Miller mandated in order to implement its substantive guarantee.’ That argument therefore did not affect the substantive (and thus retroactive) nature of Miller’s holding.”
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.