JONES V. MISSISSIPPI Upholds Life Without Parole for Children

Life sentences without parole for children are still legal in the U.S.

JONES V. MISSISSIPPI Upholds Life Without Parole for Children

The United States Supreme Court denied the appeal of Brett Jones,. Jones killed his grandfather in self-defense when he was 15 years old. The opinion, delivered by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, stands for the proposition that judges should have discretion to sentence youth offenders as they see fit. The ruling upholds a 2012 decision which describes life without parole for children as a “constitutionally disproportionate punishment” even in cases of homicide. Scientific research discourages life sentences for minors; still, many states still exercise life without parole sentencing for offenders under the age of 18.

Who is Brett Jones and why did a judge put him in prison for life?

The story of Brett Jones sounds cliché. His father went to prison and his mother remarried when Jones was 10 years old, introducing an abusive stepfather to the home. Jones moved around so often that schools couldn’t keep up with his records. Because of this, he had to repeat the 7th grade. His stepfather verbally and physically abused him, often drawing blood when he whipped Jones and his younger brother. The stepfather also choked the boys. Jones practiced self-harm from an early age as a result of the stress.

One day, his stepfather grabbed Jones by the throat, threatening him with a belt because Jones missed curfew. Jones lashed out, punching his stepfather in the ear and splitting it open. After the incident, Jones moved from his mother’s home to live with his paternal grandparents. Though the new situation worked for a while, things eventually took a dark turn. Jones’ grandfather was angry after finding him and his girlfriend watching television in Jones’ bedroom.

Jones says that his grandfather began yelling at him like never before and then swung at him. Brett Jones reacted, throwing the knife he was using to make a sandwich. When his grandfather came toward him again, Jones grabbed a second knife and stabbed his grandfather eight times. He showed remorse, calling the police and even attempting CPR, but ultimately hid his grandfather’s body and fled. According to the prosecution, it wasn’t self-defense but uncontrollable animosity and rage that fueled Jones’ attack.

The Supreme Court has decided that states can issue sentences of life without parole to children.
Image courtesy of David von Diemar via Unsplash.

Despite spending the past 17 years in prison, Jones has a clean discipline record and no history of violence.

During the trial, Jones’ girlfriend said that Jones threatened to hurt his grandfather. However, she recanted during cross-examination, admitting that she lied because she didn’t want to go to prison herself. Jurors had to decide if the act was manslaughter or murder. They took just four hours to find Jones guilty of murder. The judge gave Jones the mandatory sentence of life without parole. But sentencing children to life without parole has Its complications. As cited in Miller vs. Alabama, numerous studies prove that few child offenders are incapable of rehabilitation.

Why life without parole for children is such a problem.

When it comes to sentencing children, science and law are at odds. The judge in Brett Jones’ case assigned a sentence that, at the time, was mandatory. Life without parole matches the seriousness of murder in the eyes of the law. But scientists are not so sure. The adolescent brain is not fully developed, they argue. Thus, child offenders have a strong chance at maturation and rehabilitation. The physical and behavioral changes associated with puberty and young adulthood are not inherently different from mood disorders and mental health conditions; adolescent changes in the brain affect aggression, judgment and impulse control.

According to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, “teenagers often lack the cognitive capacity to control their impulses as readily as adults. In addition, children who have been abused or neglected may have significant cognitive deficits, including impeded development of their cognitive control system. These systems affect the “stop-and-think” response, which in many adolescents is underdeveloped. In youth with trauma, this executive function can also be compromised through a hypersensitive fight-flight-freeze reaction.”

This statement supports the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama that “mandatory life without parole sentences for children pose too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.” Though this ruling acknowledges that judges must differentiate between children and adults during sentencing, it did not ban life without parole sentences for children. Some states interpreted the ruling differently than others, causing disparity in the implementation of Miller vs. Alabama. With Jones vs. Mississippi, the Supreme Court supports the proposition that all judges should have the discretion to impose a different sentence in the case of child offenders, and further that Miller vs. Alabama applies retroactively. Under this ruling, incarcerated people like Brett Jones could appeal for resentencing, but courts have no obligation to alter their sentences.

States have disagreed on whether or not Miller v. Alabama applied to people already serving life without parole in state prisons.

Law professors Robert Johnson and Margaret Lelgey explain that, though the Supreme Court ruling would mandate that judges consider the unique differences of juvenile offenders, it was not clear whether or not the mandate applied retroactively. This is significant because sentences of life without parole for children exploded during the 1990s, coinciding with the introduction of the term “super-predator” in justice reform discourse. In states that did not interpret the court’s decision as retroactive, this meant that many juveniles sentenced to life without parole could not appeal their sentences.

To further clarify their opinion, the Supreme Court specifically acknowledged that Miller v. Alabama should apply retroactively four years later, as part of their opinion in Montgomery v. Louisiana. These decisions reflect an understanding of scientific research around maturation. During their research, Johnson and Lelgey found that juveniles serving life without parole are more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse in prison. They are also less likely to report abuses. They conclude that “in time, then, most life-sentence inmates transform into persons who, utterly unlike the persons they were when younger, are able to lead law-abiding, responsible, and productive lives in prison.”

Image courtesy of Claire Anderson via Unsplash.

The Supreme Court has maintained that life sentences for children are discretionary decisions.

Jones v. Mississippi is the third major case to tackle life without parole for children in less than a decade. Research is clear that sentences of life without parole leave incarcerated people feeling hopeless. It can affect mental health and even lead to early death. In fact, some believe that life without parole should be considered capital punishment. It’s not a merciful alternative to the death penalty, but a prolonged death penalty, they argue. Under this premise, sentencing children to life behind bars is not very different from sentencing them to die.

In Jones v. Mississippi, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that “Discretionary sentencing allows the sentencer to consider the defendant’s youth, and thereby helps ensure that life-without-parole sentences are imposed only in cases where that sentence is appropriate in light of the defendant’s age.” Implicit in this statement is that life without parole is an appropriate sentence for some children.

However, the United States is the only country that still utilizes sentences of life without parole for juveniles. The vast majority of states have laws that allow judges to impose life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders. Now, more than 2,000 incarcerated people currently serve sentences of life without parole for crimes they committed before the age of 18. Human rights organizations and treaties expressly forbid life without parole for children. With the most recent ruling, the Supreme Court stops short of banning life without parole children, tacitly permitting states to continue a practice that the rest of the world unanimously rejects.

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