Juvenile Life Without Parole: Where the Law Stands After Jones v. Mississippi

Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

Margo McGehee, Blog Chair, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.[1] Although twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have banned these sentences for juveniles, nearly 1,500 people are still serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles.[2] Since 2005, the Supreme Court has issued a handful of decisions limiting the circumstances in which a juvenile may be sentenced to life in prison. In each of these cases, the Supreme Court relied upon scientific research to conclude that the brain function of juveniles is significantly different than that of adults, and youths who commit even the most serious crimes have the capacity to change.

Recent legal developments on both the state and national level have reintroduced discussion of when, if ever, juveniles should be sentenced to life in prison and what should be done about individuals currently serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. In November 2020, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Jones v. Mississippi to decide whether a judge must determine if a juvenile convicted of a homicide crime is “permanently incorrigible,” meaning they have no hope of rehabilitation, before sentencing them to life without parole.[3] On April 22, 2021, the Court issued its decision.

Part II of this article will overview the current state of the law as it relates to juveniles sentenced to life without parole and the impact of Jones v. Mississippi. Part III will discuss why juveniles convicted of crimes should be treated differently than adults in sentencing.

II. Background

A. Supreme Court Precedent

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that imposing the death penalty on juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment, effectively banning the practice nationwide.[4] The Court considered the cognitive differences between juveniles and adults in reaching its decision, noting that immaturity diminishes a juvenile’s culpability and recognizing that juveniles have a heightened capacity for reform.[5]

In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment also prohibits life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes.[6] Justice Kennedy noted that “[t]he concept of proportionality is central to the Eighth Amendment,” and precedent decisions establish that non-homicide offenses do not warrant the most serious punishment available.[7] The Court called life without parole “an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile . . . A 16-year-old and a 75-year-old each sentenced to life without parole receive the same punishment in name only.”[8] The Court again noted the fundamental cognitive differences between juveniles and adults when reaching its decision.[9]

In the 2012 case of Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court expanded on its previous decisions by striking down mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of homicide crimes—again, on Eighth Amendment grounds.[10] However, juveniles may still be sentenced to life without parole on a case-by-case basis for homicide crimes.[11] The Court noted that adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” all factors that should mitigate the punishment received by juvenile defendants.[12]

In 2016, the Supreme Court determined in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller decision applied retroactively to convictions that became final before Miller was decided, making thousands of automatically-sentenced prisoners eligible for parole.[13] States are not required to resentence individuals in cases where a juvenile received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, but states must permit juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole.[14]

After Miller and Montgomery, state courts may sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole for homicide crimes as long as the sentence is not a mandatory penalty under the law. Currently, twenty-six states still allow life without parole as a sentencing option for juveniles.[15]

B. Jones v. Mississippi

On April 22, 2021, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Jones v. Mississippi,[16] the most recent juvenile life-without-parole case to reach the highest court since Montgomery in 2016. The Court evaluated whether states may sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for homicide crimes without finding that the juvenile is so incorrigible that there is no hope of rehabilitation.[17]

Brett Jones was sentenced to life without parole—Mississippi’s mandatory sentence for murder—for killing his grandfather less than a month after his 15th birthday.[18] After Miller was decided, the Supreme Court of Mississippi ordered resentencing in Jones’ case, and the resentencing judge upheld Jones’ original sentence.[19]

Jones argued that the resentencing judge operated under a fundamental misunderstanding of Miller when the judge failed to determine that he was permanently incorrigible before sentencing him to life without parole.[20] The phrase “permanent incorrigibility” comes from Montgomery, where the Supreme Court stated that Miller barred life without parole “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”[21] Mississippi is among a small minority of states that allows life-without-parole sentences for juvenile homicide crimes without requiring a finding of permanent incorrigibility, and Jones argued that this is inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Miller.[22]  

The State in Jones argued that the judge was not required to make a permanent incorrigibility determination under Miller, and the Eighth Amendment does not require a finding that the juvenile is incapable of rehabilitation before sentencing him to life without parole.[23] Instead, the State contended that judges must only “consider the mitigating circumstances of youth before sentencing a juvenile to life without parole” and that permanent incorrigibility is just “one way of testing the sentence’s proportionality.”[24]

On this issue, the Supreme Court held that Miller and Montgomery do not require a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a juvenile defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole.[25] The Court reasoned that “a discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient.”[26]

III. Discussion

In each of the aforementioned cases decided before Jones, the Supreme Court considered key differences between adult and adolescent brain development and other relevant factors to limit life-without-parole sentencing of juveniles. Despite the ultimate holding of Jones, courts should continue to consider these cognitive differences when sentencing juveniles.

One key difference is the lack of prefrontal cortex development in young brains. This lack of development impacts juveniles’ ability to delay and reflect upon their actions, leading to rash and impulsive decisions.[27] Lack of prefrontal cortex development also diminishes juveniles’ abilities to contemplate risks and consequences.[28] Furthermore, juveniles have different social-emotional systems than adults: they have an increased need to seek reward and sensation, are more emotionally reactive to both positive and negative emotions, and are more susceptible to “peer-pressure.”[29] However, as the cognitive control system develops with age, the development leads to increased impulse control, better emotional regulation, more foresight and resistance to stress and peer pressure, and better anticipation of consequences and outcomes.[30] These drastic changes in development contribute to the understanding that juveniles have a better chance at rehabilitation than their adult counterparts.

Apart from cognitive differences, courts should also consider other factors when deciding a juvenile’s sentence. Justice Kagan noted in Miller that juvenile defendants are at a substantial disadvantage in criminal proceedings, as they are less able to assist in their own defenses and are more likely to respond to the high pressure of interrogation than adults.[31] Moreover, juveniles are treated differently in many other contexts, as almost every state prohibits juveniles from voting, buying cigarettes, and serving on juries.[32] These state legislatures recognize that juveniles have different qualities that should exclude them from some activities available to adults, and courts should not ignore these differences. The sheer cost of life sentences for juveniles should also give sentencing judges pause: it costs $34,135 per year, on average, to house a prisoner, and this number roughly doubles when that prisoner is over the age of 50.[33] A juvenile sentenced to life without parole could live eighty years or more, imposing a significant financial burden on the state. Finally, courts should consider racial disparities within the criminal justice system when sentencing. Black individuals convicted of homicide crimes are sentenced to life without parole at approximately double the rate of white individuals convicted of the same crime, demonstrating that race and ethnicity may play a subconscious role in a judge’s decision-making.[34]

IV. Conclusion

Under Jones v. Mississippi, judges are not required to find a juvenile permanently incorrigible before sentencing them to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a homicide crime. Instead, judges may use discretion to determine whether such a judgment is appropriate under the circumstances. Despite the outcome of Jones, courts should continue to consider scientific research on adolescent brain development and other relevant factors that distinguish juveniles from adults when sentencing juveniles.

[1] Josh Rovner, Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview, The Sentencing Project (Mar. 8, 2021), https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/juvenile-life-without-parole/.

[2] Id.

[3] Jones v. Mississippi, 140 S. Ct. 1293 (2020); Nina Totenberg, Supreme Court Examines When Juveniles May Be Sentenced to Life Without Parole, NPR (Nov. 3, 2020), https://www.npr.org/2020/11/03/930892945/supreme-court-examines-when-juveniles-may-be-sentenced-to-life-without-parole.

[4] Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005).

[5] Id. at 568-74.

[6] Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010).

[7] Id. at 59; Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008).

[8] Graham, 560 U.S. at 70.

[9] Id. at 68.

[10] Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 479 (2012).

[11] Id. at 489.

[12] Id. at 472.

[13] Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190, 207 (2016).

[14] Montgomery Slip Op. at 21.

[15] Rovner, supra note 1.

[16] 593 U.S. 1307 (2021).

[17] Totenberg, supra note 3.

[18] Amy Howe, Case preview: Court to consider life sentences for juveniles – again, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 2, 2020), https://www.scotusblog.com/2020/11/case-preview-court-to-consider-life-sentences-for-juveniles-again/.

[19] Totenberg, supra note 3.

[20] Id.

[21] Montgomery, 577 U.S. at 209.

[22] Totenberg, supra note 3.

[23] Howe, supra note 18.

[24] Id.

[25] Jones v. Mississippi, 593 U.S. 1307, 1309 (2021).

[26] Id.

[27] Morgan Tyler, Understanding the Adolescent Brain and Legal Culpability, ABA (Aug. 1, 2015), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/child_law/resources/child_law_practiceonline/child_law_practice/vol-34/august-2015/understanding-the-adolescent-brain-and-legal-culpability/.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 477-78 (2012).

[32] Rovner, supra note 1.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

Leave a Reply