Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided Jones v. Mississippi, a case about sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Authored by none other than Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the majority opinion guts existing precedent on juvenile life without parole and allows states like Mississippi to keep sending children to prison for the rest of their lives, no matter how young they were at the time of the crime and no matter what they do to rehabilitate themselves.

But Brett Kavanaugh, you ask? Wasn't he ... yes.


Like Sonia Sotomayor says in her dissent,

The Eighth Amendment does not excuse children's crimes, nor does it shield them from all punishment. It does, however, demand that most children be spared from punishments that "give no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope."

Jones and other juvenile offenders like him seek only the possibility of parole. Not the certainty of release, but the opportunity, at some point in their lives, to show a parole board all they have done to rehabilitate themselves and to ask for a second chance. Jones recognizes that the parole board may ultimately decide he must spend his entire life behind bars. He simply requests that the State not make the judgment at the outset that he never will be fit to reenter society. The Eighth Amendment requires that most juvenile offenders be given this small hope for some years of life outside prison walls.

How we got here

To fully understand yesterday's opinion, first, we need to go back in time.

Starting in 2005, a series of Supreme Court decisions found that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited certain extreme sentences for children. For a while, things continued to move in the right direction.

In 2005, the Court determined in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty was unconstitutional for people who had been under 18 at the time of the crime.

In 2010, Graham v. Florida banned juvenile life without parole in all cases except homicide.

In 2012, SCOTUS ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional.

And in 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana held that Miller should be applied retroactively (that is, children who received mandatory life without parole sentences before Miller was decided were entitled to new sentencing hearings).

Brett Jones was convicted of murdering his grandfather. He had just turned 15 at the time of the crime.

When Jones was convicted, Mississippi had a mandatory sentence of life without parole. After Miller was decided, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered Jones a new sentencing hearing, so a judge could consider Jones's young age at the time of the crime. The sentencing judge, however, kept the sentence of life without parole in place. And now, the Supreme Court has upheld it — and made it even harder for kids to get a fair process in the future.

All of the cases from Roper to Montgomery emphasize that juveniles are, you know, children. Children are less culpable than adults, their brains aren't fully developed, and they can almost always be rehabilitated. Both Miller and Montgomery specifically emphasized that sentencers must distinguish "between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate and transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption."

But a lot has happened at the Supreme Court since 2005. Hell, a lot has happened at the Court since 2016. The Roper and Miller decisions were 5-4, with RBG and Anthony Kennedy in the majority; they have since been replaced by Kegs Kavanaugh and Amy Bony Carrot, respectively. And — take note, John Roberts apologists — Jones was not decided 5-4. John Roberts, who also dissented in Miller, was in the 6-3 majority right along with Kegs. (In this particular instance, Gorsuch replacing Scalia was basically a wash.)

But now, we're going backwards again. This opinion makes it much easier for states to send children to prison for the rest of their lives, with no hope of being released.

Just a few years ago, Montgomery declared that juvenile life without parole was unconstitutional for "all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility." It also said that life without parole was unconstitutional for "juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth."
All that Jones's lawyers were asking was a requirement that courts follow the earlier precedent and make a specific finding that a child is one of "those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption" before sending him to prison for the rest of his life. Montgomery even straight-up says that its purpose is to "give[] effect to Miller's substantive holding that life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity."
But that doesn't matter to the majority! It guts the entire reasoning of Miller and Montgomery, holding instead that a sentencing hearing that allows a judge any discretion whatsoever when sentencing a child is totally fine. No need to make a specific finding of why this particular child should receive such an extreme sentence. Just say you considered a defendant's age and you're good.
Clarence Thomas, being Clarence Thomas, felt the need to write a separate concurrence, explaining that he still thinks Montgomery was wrong and kids who were sentenced to mandatory life without parole should all rot in prison for the rest of their lives.

So that's awful

The only sanity in yesterday's decision comes from the Court's #BestJustice, Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented. (Sotomayor's dissent was joined by the Court's other libs, Breyer and Kagan.)

The majority, says Sotomayor, "distorts Miller and Montgomery beyond recognition." "Miller," writes Sotomayor, "held that juvenile LWOP sentences must be rare because it is only 'the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.'" Rather than actually follow this precedent, argues Sotomayor,

In the Court's view, a sentencer never need determine, even implicitly, whether a juvenile convicted of homicide is one of those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption. Even if the juvenile's crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, he can be sentenced to die in prison.This conclusion would come as a shock to the Courts in Miller and Montgomery. Miller's essential holding is that "a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest children, those whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption."

Sotomayor also points out that the vast majority of children sentenced to life without parole are children of color — and the racial disparity in sentencing has only increased since mandatory life without parole for children was banned. Before Miller, 61 percent of children sentenced to life without parole were Black; since Miller, 72 percent of children sentenced to life without parole were Black. Because, in America's criminal justice system, anything punitive that is discretionary will be disproportionately applied to Black people.

As for Mr. Jones, writes Sotomayor,

Today, Jones is 31. His time spent in prison has now eclipsed the childhood he had outside of it. Jones should know that, despite the Court's decision today, what he does in life matters. So, too, do the efforts of the almost 1,500 other juvenile offenders like Jones who are serving LWOP sentences. Of course, nothing can repair the damage their crimes caused. But that is not the question.

The question is whether the State, at some point, must consider whether a juvenile offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation sufficient to merit a chance at life beyond the prison in which he has grown up. For most, the answer is yes.

Yup. It's all bad.

Get used to the horror show, folks. This is what a 6-3 fascist majority looks like.

But hey, I guess we should at least be relieved they didn't just reinstate the death penalty for children or something?

Happy Friday! As payment for this depressing Friday afternoon post, here is a video of my foster kittens.

These kittens have a lot to say


Here's the opinion. Sotomayor's dissent starts on page 34.



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Jamie Lynn Crofts
Jamie Lynn Crofts is sick of your bullshit. When she’s not wrangling cats, she’s probably writing about nerdy legal stuff, rocking out at karaoke, or tweeting about god knows what. Jamie would kindly like to remind everyone that it’s perfectly legal to tell Bob Murray to eat shit.
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