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Split Justices Toughen Sentencing Challenges for Juveniles (1)

April 22, 2021, 2:11 PM; Updated: April 22, 2021, 3:16 PM

The Supreme Court made it tougher for people who were sentenced to life-without-parole for crimes committed as juveniles to break free from their prison terms.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the Thursday ruling for the six-justice Republican appointed majority over dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor for the three Democratic appointees that said the majority “guts” precedent in the process.

Though criminal cases can scramble traditional ideological lines, the decision highlights the longstanding divide on the court when it comes to Eighth Amendment cruel and unusual punishment cases. That divide is also evident in death penalty cases where the court’s 5-4 gap widened to 6-3 when Justice Amy Coney Barrett replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In Thursday’s ruling, Kavanaugh wrote that, in the case of a defendant who committed a homicide when he or she was under eighteen, Supreme Court precedent doesn’t require a separate factual finding of “permanent incorrigibility” before a sentence of life-without-parole is imposed.

The case came to the court through the appeal of Brett Jones, who killed his grandfather, Bertis, during an argument at home in the summer of 2004, a few weeks after he turned 15.

Jones had recently moved in with his grandparents in Mississippi to escape violence in the Florida home he shared with his stepfather and mother. His girlfriend ran away from home in Florida to stay with Jones in Mississippi. Jones and Bertis fought after Bertis found the girlfriend in the house and kicked her out.

His appeal forced the court to reckon with prior juvenile sentencing precedents in 2012’s Miller v. Alabama and 2016’s Montgomery v. Louisiana.

In Miller, the court said the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, prohibits mandatory life-without-parole for juveniles. After Miller, in a new sentencing, the state court heard evidence of Jones’ abusive childhood and rehabilitation in prison but still said he shouldn’t be eligible for parole.

The Supreme Court then decided Montgomery, which made Miller retroactive.

That left the question for Jones’ case of what those precedents require—that is, what specific findings judges need to make at sentencing before locking juvenile offenders up for life.

In ruling that sentencing explanations aren’t required to ensure that judges consider defendants’ youth, Kavanaugh rejected the dissent’s contention that the majority cast aside precedent. Rather, he framed the disagreement as one over how to interpret Miller and Montgomery, and how the respective sides view the Eighth Amendment.

“Under our precedents, this Court’s more limited role is to safeguard the limits imposed by the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment,” Kavanaugh wrote.

“The Court’s precedents require a discretionary sentencing procedure in a case of this kind,” he wrote. “The resentencing in Jones’s case complied with those precedents because the sentence was not mandatory and the trial judge had discretion to impose a lesser punishment in light of Jones’s youth.”

Kavanaugh’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Barrett. Justice Clarence Thomas filed his own opinion, agreeing with the result but saying the court should overrule Montgomery.

In dissent, writing for herself and Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Sotomayor cast the disagreement as more profound.

“Today, the Court guts” Miller and Montgomery, Sotomayor wrote. The decision “would come as a shock to the Courts in Miller and Montgomery,” she wrote.

Despite claiming to follow those precedents, she wrote, the majority “is fooling no one.”

The case is Jones v. Mississippi, U.S., No. 18-1259.

(Updates with additional reporting throughout. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Crawley at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; Tom P. Taylor at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com

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