Supreme Court Rejects Limits on Life Terms for Youths

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that judges need not determine that juvenile offenders are beyond hope of rehabilitation before sentencing them to die in prison. The decision, concerning a teenager who killed his grandfather, appeared to signal the end of a trend that had limited the availability of severe punishments for youths who commit crimes before they turn 18.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, writing for the majority in the 6-to-3 ruling, said it was enough that the sentencing judge exercised discretion rather than automatically imposing a sentence of life without parole.

“In a case involving an individual who was under 18 when he or she committed a homicide,” he wrote, “a state’s discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient.”

No specific finding concerning the defendant’s maturity or capacity for change was required, he wrote.

The ruling drew a caustic dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who accused the majority of gutting two major precedents.

Over the past 16 years, the court, often led by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, methodically limited the availability of the harshest penalties for crimes committed by juveniles, first by striking down the juvenile death penalty and then by restricting sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

But Justice Kennedy retired in 2018, and the court, now dominated by six conservative members, does not seem to have enthusiasm for continuing his project.

Thursday’s decision, Jones v. Mississippi, No. 18-1259, concerned Brett Jones, who had recently turned 15 in 2004 when his grandfather discovered his girlfriend in his room. The two men argued and fought, and the youth, who had been making a sandwich, stabbed his grandfather eight times, killing him.

In 2005, Mr. Jones was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, then the mandatory penalty under state law. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty for juvenile offenders was unconstitutional.

In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the court extended the logic of the Roper decision to ban mandatory life-without-parole sentences like the one imposed on Mr. Jones. The decision repeatedly criticized mandatory sentences, suggesting that only ones in which judges could take account of the defendant’s age were permissible.

In Montgomery v. Louisiana in 2016, the court made the Miller decision retroactive. In the process, it seemed to read the Miller decision to ban life without parole not only for defendants who received mandatory sentences but also “for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Mr. Jones a new sentencing hearing. The trial judge resentenced him to life without parole without saying in so many words that he was incorrigible.

Writing for the majority on Thursday, Justice Kavanaugh said the resentencing did not violate the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishments, because the punishment imposed by the trial judge had been discretionary rather than mandatory.

He said his opinion “carefully follows both Miller and Montgomery,” stressing that the 2016 case had made clear that the court “did not impose a formal fact-finding requirement.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett joined that majority opinion.

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor responded “the court is fooling no one.”

“The lone statement on which the court fixates,” she wrote, “recognizes only that Miller does not mandate a particular procedure for considering a defendant’s youth or explaining the sentencer’s decision. Miller certainly does not require sentencers to invoke any magic words.”

But, she wrote, the sentencing judge must make a reasoned determination that the defendant’s crime reflected irreparable corruption rather than transient immaturity.

“Today,” she wrote, “the court guts Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana.”

Justice Kavanaugh rejected the charge that the majority had twisted the earlier decisions, saying it had faithfully complied with stare decisis, the legal doctrine requiring respect for precedent.

Justice Sotomayor responded that the majority had satisfied none of the usual criteria for overturning earlier decisions.

“How low this court’s respect for stare decisis has sunk,” she wrote. “Now, it seems, the court is willing to overrule precedent without even acknowledging it is doing so, much less providing any special justification.”

Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan joined Justice Sotomayor’s dissent.

In a concurring opinion that did not endorse the majority’s reasoning, Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the dissenters, to a point. He said the majority should have overruled the court’s 2016 Montgomery opinion instead of adopting a “strained reading” of it.

The majority and dissent also differed about the practical consequences of Thursday’s ruling.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote that the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions had made life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders uncommon. In Mississippi, he wrote, resentencings following the Miller decision have “reduced life-without-parole sentences for murderers under 18 by about 75 percent.”

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor saw some of those same statistics differently. “Unbound by Miller’s essential holding, more than a quarter of Mississippi’s resentencings have resulted in the reimposition of L.W.O.P.,” or life without parole.

“Elsewhere, the numbers are even more alarming,” she wrote. “As of 2020, Louisiana has imposed L.W.O.P. on an astonishing 57 percent of eligible juvenile offenders since Miller was decided.”

The experience in states that require a finding of incorrigibility was different, she wrote. In Pennsylvania, for example, fewer than 2 percent of resentencings have resulted in the reimposition of life-without-parole sentences.

Justice Sotomayor added that 70 percent of youths sentenced to die in prison are children of color.

Justice Kavanaugh wrote that states had tools to address juvenile life without parole.

“States may categorically prohibit life without parole for all offenders under 18,” he wrote. “Or 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.”

He added that Mr. Jones may apply to the governor for clemency.