Jones v. Mississippi Opinion
On April 22, 2021, the United States Supreme Court declined to impose additional procedural requirements on the ability of states to sentence individuals to life without parole for crimes committed as children.
Brett Jones, the petitioner in the case, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a crime committed in 2004 when he was 15 years old. After Miller, the Mississippi Circuit Court resentenced Mr. Jones to life without the possibility of parole without finding him permanently incorrigible or explicitly considering his capacity for rehabilitation. The court did, however, state that it had “considered each of the Miller factors” and discussed various mitigating and aggravating factors, including the circumstances of the crime, Mr. Jones’s home environment, and his maturity.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kavanaugh held that Miller does not require “a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility” before a youthful offender may be sentenced to life without parole, and “a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility . . . is not required.”
However, Justice Kavanaugh repeatedly highlighted that “[Jones] does not overrule Miller or Montgomery” and that it does not disturb Miller’s substantive holding that “[a] State may not impose a mandatory life-without-parole sentence” on an individual who committed a homicide offense when they were under the age of 18.” Thus, Jones dealt only with the procedure that attends a juvenile sentencing hearing, leaving untouched the substantive rules articulated by the Court’s previous cases. Indeed, the Court reaffirmed such rulings, reciting the fundamental principle of Montgomery:
“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. … That Miller did not impose formal factfinding requirement does not leave States free to sentence a child whose crime reflects transient immaturity to life without parole.”
Moreover, as noted by Justice Kavanaugh and highlighted by the dissent, an individual sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed as a child may successfully challenge such a sentence under the Eighth Amendment by showing that the sentence was disproportionate as applied in their particular case.
Importantly, Justice Kavanaugh also emphasized that while the U.S. Constitution does not demand any one particular policy approach to comply with the requirements of Miller, states may impose a number of additional sentencing limits in cases involving individuals facing life without parole for crimes committed as children.
“States may categorically prohibit life without parole for all offenders under 18. 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.”
Certiorari Petition & Opposition Filed in Jones v. Mississippi