In its 2016 decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed its previous ruling in Miller v. Alabama, that imposing a life-without-parole sentence on a juvenile homicide offender pursuant to a mandatory penalty scheme violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court also held in Montgomery that, because life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders should be exceedingly rare, sentencing judges violate Miller’s rule any time they impose a discretionary life-without parole sentence on a juvenile homicide offender without first concluding that the offender is permanently incapable of reform. Following Miller and Montgomery, however, the question remained whether and how to enforce the requirement that sentencing judges limit life-without-parole sentences to those who are permanently incapable of reform. The Court considered this question in Jones v. Mississippi.
Brett Jones, the petitioner, received a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole for killing his grandfather. He was 15 at the time of the offense. Several years later, Mr. Jones had a resentencing hearing to determine whether he was entitled to parole eligibility under Mississippi law. In light of Miller and Montgomery, which were decided after Mr. Jones was originally sentenced, the sentencing court weighed various factors and concluded that Mr. Jones was not eligible for parole. The court did not, however, expressly find that Mr. Jones was permanently incapable of reform. Mr. Jones challenged the determination that he was not eligible for parole as inadequate under Miller and Montgomery and argued that the sentencer was required to find that he was permanently incapable of reform before imposing a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. LDF filed an amicus brief with the Juvenile Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and 65 other organizations highlighting the disproportionate number of Black youths who are serving life-without-parole sentences and emphasizing that a finding of permanent incorrigibility would help to ensure that courts do not base life-without-parole sentences on impermissible factors such as race.
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court disagreed. The Court held that Miller and Montgomery do not require a sentencer to make an express finding that a juvenile is permanently incapable of reform before sentencing them to life without the possibility of parole. According to the Court, all the U.S. Constitution requires is that a sentencer retain discretion in imposing a sentence and that life-without-parole sentences are not mandatory for any juvenile offender. The Court’s decision substantially curtailed the reach of the its prior decisions in Miller and Montgomery and undermines the principle that life-without-parole sentences for juveniles should be reserved only for those who are determined to be permanently incapable of reform.