By Lisa Soronen
In Jones v. Mississippi the U.S. Supreme Court held 6-3 that sentencing a juvenile convicted of homicide to life without parole doesn’t require a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility or an on-the-record explanation with an implicit finding of permanent incorrigibility.
In Miller v. Alabama (2012) the Supreme Court held that while the Eighth Amendment permits life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide, this sentence is not mandatory, meaning the sentencer (judge or jury) has discretion to impose a lesser sentence. In Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) the Supreme Court held that Miller applies retroactively to sentences issued before 2012.
In 2004 Brett Jones, at age 15, killed his grandfather. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. After Miller was decided a trial court determined that the sentence of life without parole was appropriate in his case and resentenced him to life in prison without parole. The Mississippi Court of Appeals rejected Jones’s argument that the trial court should have made a separate factual finding that he was permanently incorrigible before resentencing him.
According to Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, a sentencer does not violate the Eighth Amendment by imposing
e a life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile homicide offender without first making a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility.
Kavanaugh concluded the court’s following statements in Montgomery resolve this case: “Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement” and “a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility . . . is not required.” Quoting Miller, the Court further reasoned that it required “only that a sentencer follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing” a life-without-parole sentence.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan dissented and criticized the court for relying on “Montgomery’s modest statement” as the “linchpin” of its decision. The dissent pointed to other language in Montgomery clarifying the fact that just because “Miller did not impose a formal factfinding requirement does not leave States free to sentence a child whose crime reflects transient immaturity to life without parole. To the contrary,
Miller established that this punishment is disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment.” According to the dissent the sentencer must actually “make th[e] judgment” that the juvenile in question “is one of those rare children for whom [life in prison without parole] is a constitutionally permissible sentence.”
Near the end of the majority opinion Kavanaugh opines that states can pass laws that offer juvenile homicide offenders protections beyond what the federal constitution requires:
"Importantly, like Miller and Montgomery, our holding today does not preclude the States from imposing additional sentencing limits in cases involving defendants under 18 convicted of murder. States may categorically prohibit life without parole for all offenders under 18. Or States may require sentencers to make extra factual findings before sentencing an offender under 18 to life without parole.
"Or states may direct sentencers to formally explain on the record why a life-without-parole sentence is appropriate notwithstanding the defendant’s youth. States may also establish rigorous proportionality or other substantive appellate review of life-without-parole sentences. All of those options, and others, remain available to the states."
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial issues.