Conservative Supreme Court takes away a route to rehabilitation for juveniles convicted of capital crimes

April 23, 2021 • 11:30 am

The tweets below alerted me to the fact that yes, the Supreme Court is acting conservatively, as we expect, but in this case it’s also changing course. In the just-decided case of Jones v. Mississippi, the judges ruled 6-3 that giving a juvenile a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a crime committed under the age of 18 does not, as it did before in Mississippi, require a finding that the criminal be “permanently incorrigible”. The dissenters were, as expected, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Breyer—the three liberals on the court. (The decision, written by Brett Kavanaugh, is here, which includes Sotomayor’s strong dissent. Have a look at that dissent.)

As Nina Totenberg reports at NPR, Brett Jones, now 31, was only 15 when he stabbed his grandfather to death in a fight about Brett’s girlfriend. Despite his age, Jones was sentenced to life without parole.  There was no finding of “incorrigibility” involved, as the law required. His lawyer took the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, arguing that the defendant at least deserved a chance at parole, especially because he’s been a model prisoner over the past 16 years and graduated from high school while incarcerated. As Jones stated, “”I’ve pretty much taken every avenue that I could possibly take … to rehabilitate myself … I can’t change what I’ve done. I can just try to show … I’ve become a grown man.”

From the NPR report:

Over the past two decades, the law on juvenile sentencing has changed significantly. The Supreme Court — primed by research that shows the brains of juveniles are not fully developed, and that they are likely to lack impulse control — has issued a half dozen opinions holding that juveniles are less culpable than adults for their acts. And the court has also ruled that some of the harshest punishments for acts committed by children are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

After striking down the death penalty for juvenile offenders, the court, in a series of decisions, limited life without parole sentences to the rarest cases — those juvenile offenders convicted of murder who are so incorrigible that there is no hope for their rehabilitation.

But all of those decisions were issued when the makeup of the court was quite different than it is now. This case was the first time the court has heard arguments in a juvenile sentencing case with three Trump appointees on the bench, including new Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Previously, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired in 2018, repeatedly was the deciding vote in cases involving life sentences and other harsh punishments for juvenile offenders. But with Kennedy retired and replaced by Kavanaugh, and with Ginsburg replaced by Barrett, the court in this case indicated that it is not inclined to go the extra mile to protect juvenile offenders from the harshest punishments.

What this means is that the Supreme Court has blocked a way for juveniles to show sufficient rehabilitation to be considered for parole.  Yet as we know, one of the purposes of incarceration is supposed to be rehabilitation, and in the last 16 years Jones has shown encouraging signs of that. But it’s no use: given the decision, he’ll probably spend the next four or five decades, until he dies, locked up for a crime he committed at 15.

I think this is unfair, coldhearted, and a repudiation of what “punishment” is supposed to effect.  Is there no possibility of rehabilitating these prisoners? At least there used to be a procedure for determining if an incarcerated juvenile was “permanently incorrigible”. Now that’s gone in the state. And according to NPR, 25 states do not allow “life without parole” sentences for juveniles.  Six others have nobody serving such a sentence. The other 19 are like Mississippi, allowing sentences of life without parole for those who kill as juveniles.

The upshot: the conservative Justices don’t give a rat’s patootie about rehabilitation, for their view of justice is retributive. If you think someone like Jones can be reintergrated safely into society, what is the point of taking away any chance of parole?

NPR’s conclusion:

Thursday’s ruling will certainly make it more difficult for juvenile offenders like Jones to show judges they deserve another chance at freedom somewhere down the road, says Cardozo Law School’s Kathryn Miller. “It’s going to be much harder to convince judges” that evidence of rehabilitation is relevant, she says.

“A lot of times these judges really want to still focus on the facts of the crime” even though it is years or decades later, she said. “They’re not interested in the rehabilitation narrative.”

Neither, it seems, is the newly constituted conservative Supreme Court majority.

Here are tweets by Mark Joseph Stern about the case; he’s a legal reporter for Slate:

29 thoughts on “Conservative Supreme Court takes away a route to rehabilitation for juveniles convicted of capital crimes

  1. This is so disheartening. With what we know about frontal lobe development, it’s unconscionable. Shameful that Kavanaugh, who didn’t want to be judged for his own youthful behavior, would write the opinion.

    1. “Shameful that Kavanaugh, who didn’t want to be judged for his own youthful behavior, would write the opinion” – you’ve nailed it, yazikus.

  2. This is no more than additional evidence that these so-called justices rule with a bible and rarely open a law book. They are mostly worthless just as the guy who put the last three in there.

    1. Being that they are, with the exceptions of Kagan and Breyer, ALL roman catholics that would be a catechism rather than a bible (which catholics rarely read). Or maybe it would be “malleus maleficarum” – their sense of justice seems to run to the medieval.

    2. I wonder whether any of those three savage assholes will ever have a second thought about the ignominy of having been appointed by the order of magnitude worst president ever, probably the worst leader except for Hitler of any supposedly civilized country.

      1. I’ve often wondered that…and why didn’t at least one of those three realize the stain of Trump’s nomination on their career? Craven. Power corrupts and religion poisons…that’s where they are it seems.

    1. All clemency power over Mississippi convictions, including the authority to commute sentences, is vested solely within the discretion of the state’s governor. Under our system of federalism, the US president has no say.

        1. I’ll be surprised if he (and, quite possibly, some of his kids) aren’t indicted by the Manhattan DA’s office before the term of the current occupant of that office, Cyrus Vance, Jr., expires later this year.

  3. Unfortunately, until our society stops approaching prison as retributive – which is the explicit purpose here in Florida at least, apparently (and of course, until it is less remunerative in many places) – there will be no non-reversible, convincing argument against idiocy such as this.

  4. Given the Court’s current right-wing majority, it seems it would’ve been impossible to muster the five votes that were needed to decide Roper v. Simmons — the Court’s 2005 5-4 decision holding that imposition of the death penalty on offenders who committed their crimes at under 18 years of age violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments” — although I don’t sense that the Court has any stomach for revisiting the Roper decision now.

  5. Today’s SCOTUS will continue to be an American embarrassment for decades to come, deciding cases and “ruling” from the minority. That’s why democrats need to unpack the court by adding more justices.

  6. I’m weirdly less upset with the SCOTUS ruling than the guidance (state or fed?) under which the original sentence was handed down and under which the criminal is not granted a chance of parole. Just because SCOTUS says it’s legal for the system to be excessively punitive, doesn’t mean we must make our system excessively vindictive.

    I think this is unfair, coldhearted, and a repudiation of what “punishment” is supposed to effect.

    I fully agree. But I think it’s worth remembering that SCOTUS merely said the original unfair, coldhearted, etc. ruling was legal. They didn’t hand the unfair, coldhearted etc. ruling down. Some lower court did that. That’s where we’ll be best able to fix the problem. At least IMO.

    1. Good luck convincing folks in the Magnolia State — which ranks at or near the nation’s bottom in education, economy, and health care, and which didn’t get around to ratifying the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery until 1995 — that any criminal sentence is “excessively vindictive.”

      As Ms. Simone sang, “Mississippi, Goddam.”

  7. “Sotomayor criticizes Kavanaugh for overturning precedent without acknowledging it. “The Court simply rewrites Miller and Montgomery to say what the Court now wishes they had said, and then denies that it has done any such thing,” she writes. “The Court knows what it is doing.””

    Yup – what it is doing is the very definition of an “activist judge”, in case anyone missed the irony of the Republican party on the issue. Not to mention the hypocrisy of the recent Republican SC appointees, who all swore to Congress until Tuesday and back again that precedent was always to be respected.

  8. Ya, the right wingers are caught up with retribution. The distinction psychologists make between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives are less adaptable to change and more averse to risk. The won’t take a chance that Jones will get out and kill their relatives. It seems to me the best chance for Jones is a pardon from Biden. Biden could set up a committee to investigate such cases and make recommendations.
    It’s either that or hope a couple of conservative justices have fatal heart attacks.

  9. A really sad outcome. In the UK, we can’t feel too smug, as an unforeseen consequence of a briefly introduced type of prison sentence continues to take its toll. The idea was that some offenders would be incarcerated until they were deemed safe to release, but a lack of the rehabilitation programmes that they had to complete to prove they could be safely released – together with a harsh sentencing regime that saw them imprisoned on the same terms for minor offences if they did succeed in getting out of jail – has led to truly tragic lives for some people convicted of relatively petty crimes. Some have served longer sentences than convicted rapists and murderers, and with no end in sight. Everyone agrees that the introduction of this type of sentence was a mistake – including the Home Secretary who created them – and they are no longer exist, except for the poor unfortunates still affected by them:

  10. NOPE; In regard to murder in the 1st, even life without parole is less than the sentence passed to the victim. You GET in prison and STAY in prison, FOR THE REST OF YOUR DAYS. At least you’re still ALIVE.

    1. Even for a crime committed at age 15 for which you have shown remorse and after you have done your best to be rehabilitated? Surely this dude could be out of jail and saving lives by educating others not to make the mistakes he did and has learned from? Compassion and forgiveness aren’t just empty words, at least in my world, and no-one is perfect.

        1. Indeed, and there are many adults who have committed heinous crimes, seen the error of their ways, and are now out there educating people to prevent them from getting addicted to drugs, joining gangs, etc. etc. Doubtless they are achieving more than you or I could, because they speak from an experience we would hope to never go through.

          I’ve no idea if your apparently vindictive approach to justice has its roots in religion, but if it does how do you square your desire for vengeance with the Bible?

          I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Luke 15:7 7

          1. “I’ve no idea if your apparently vindictive approach to justice has its roots in religion, but if it does how do you square your desire for vengeance with the Bible?”
            1. religion—>Bible…am I to think there is one religion ?!
            2. I’m atheist

    2. That’s merely assertion, not analysis. Do you have something aside from retributive justice (sometimes known as “just deserts”), which is undermined by determinism, to back it up?

  11. For what it is worth – this attorney believes that there is too much emphasis put on fighting the death penalty——vs ——- LWOP and, particularly, solitary confinement rules.

    I’d rather the needle in the arm to end it all than to spend the rest of my decades without human company. Now THAT, is torture. And let’s end the stupid war on drug users to start!
    D.A., J.D.

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