Does the Eighth Amendment require a factual finding that a juvenile defendant is incorrigible before the juvenile defendant can be sentenced to life without parole?
This case asks the Court to decide whether a state may impose a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile who is found guilty of murder without first finding that the juvenile is permanently incorrigible. Petitioner Brett Jones contends that the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence on cruel and unusual punishment categorically prohibits a life sentence without parole for a juvenile offender who is not permanently incorrigible and requires courts to make a factual finding on incorrigibility. Respondent Mississippi counters that the Eighth Amendment imposes no such requirement, claiming that the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence only forbids states from imposing mandatory life without parole sentences on juvenile offenders. The outcome of this case has significant policy implications because it raises concerns of federalism, transparency in sentencing procedures, and impact on victims.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole.
In August, 2004, Petitioner Brett Jones ("Jones") lived with his grandparents, Bertis and Madge Jones in Lee County, Mississippi. Jones v. State at 3–4. At the time, Jones was fifteen years old and legally a minor in the state of Mississippi. Id. at 13. On August 9, 2004, Jones had an argument with his grandfather. Id. at 4. Jones claims that during the argument, his grandfather pushed him and he pushed his grandfather back. Id at 4. Jones states that the altercation escalated; his grandfather "swung at [him]" and cornered him, and Jones stabbed his grandfather in response, killing him. Id. Jones testified he attempted to give his grandfather CPR and when that failed, he tried to conceal his grandfather's body and other physical evidence. Id. Two bystanders heard the altercation and observed Jones "covered in blood." Id. at 4–5. As one bystander called the police, Jones left the scene accompanied by his girlfriend; authorities arrested Jones later that day. Id at 5. The Circuit Court of Lee County convicted Jones of homicide and sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. Id. at 6.
Following his unsuccessful direct appeal, Jones filed a motion for post-conviction relief in the trial court. Id. The trial court denied Jones' motion and the Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed. Id. Jones then petitioned the Mississippi Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari. Id. In June 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Miller v. Alabama which held that the United States Constitution forbids a sentencing scheme that "mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." Id. In 2013, the Mississippi Supreme Court decided Parker v. State, holding that the Mississippi sentencing scheme for juveniles violated Miller. Id at 7. Thereafter, the Mississippi Supreme Court heard Jones' appeal and held that Miller applies retroactively. Id. The court then vacated Jones' sentence and remanded the case for a new sentencing consistent with the holding from Parker. Id. After reconsideration, the trial judge held that Jones' sentence did not violate Miller. Id. at 15. The trial judge considered the five Miller factors: (1) the juvenile's age and immaturity; (2) family home environment; (3) circumstances of the offense; (4) the incapacities of youth that may have disadvantaged the juvenile; and (5) the chance of rehabilitation. Id. at 12–14. The Mississippi Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s holding that while the trial judge had not discussed every Miller factor, the judge’s statement certifying that he had considered them was sufficient. Id. at 15. The Court of Appeals made this conclusion by finding that the trial judge's decision was not arbitrary and sufficient evidence supported it. Id. Jones then appealed for a writ of certiorari from the Mississippi Supreme Court which was initially granted. Id.
On November 29, 2018, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed its earlier grant of certiorari and dismissed Jones' case over the dissent of four justices. Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Brett Jones at 8. On March 9, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States granted Jones' petition for certiorari.
REQUIRED FINDINGS UNDER THE EIGHTH AMENDMENT
Petitioner Jones argues that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile murderers from being sentenced to life without parole unless their crimes reflect that the offender is "permanently incorrigible." Brief of Petitioner, Brett Jones at 15–16. Jones notes that the Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama defined "permanent incorrigibility" as "irreparable corruption." Id. at 17. Jones contends that the Miller decision bars mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders, requiring a sentencing judge or jury to identify the convicted juvenile as "permanently incorrigible" before handing down a sentence of life without parole. Id. Jones asserts that if trial courts are "not required to find in any form whether a defendant is or is not permanently incorrigible," they could not possibly distinguish between those incorrigible offenders who may be sentenced to life without parole and those corrigible ones who may not. Id. at 25–26. Jones also contends that the Supreme Court's holding in Montgomery v. Louisiana transformed the "permanent incorrigibility" standard into an item of substantive constitutional law, and that lower courts incorrectly apply the Montgomery holding where they do not make a finding on incorrigibility. Id. at 18–19, 26. Jones contends that the State of Louisiana’s argument in Montgomery—that Miller does not bar life without parole for corrigible offenders because it did not explicitly say so—is incorrect. Id. at 27. Jones notes that the Court in Montgomery rejected this argument and explicitly stated that Miller does bar the sentence of life without parole for corrigible juvenile offenders. Id.
Mississippi argues that the Eighth Amendment only requires trial courts to consider the mitigating circumstances of "youth and its attendant characteristics" before handing down a sentence of life without parole. Brief for Respondent, Mississippi at 36. Mississippi contends that Miller does not impose a requirement that a sentencing court make a determination regarding incorrigibility and that Montgomery goes further by explicitly rejecting such a requirement. Id. at 37. Mississippi further argues that the Court's decision announcing a new rule in Miller is distinct from its decision applying that rule retroactively in Montgomery. Id. at 24. Mississippi asserts that Montgomery did not establish any new rule regarding discretionary sentencing and also did not expand the rule announced in Miller. Id. at 24–25. Citing to Teague v. Lane, Mississippi contends that cases on collateral review such as Montgomery are generally not the source of new rules. Id. at 25. Therefore, Mississippi asserts, Jones' claim that an expanded understanding of Miller requiring sentencing courts to determine whether an offender is permanently incorrigible is incorrect. Id. Instead, Mississippi argues that Montgomery merely applied the rule of Miller barring mandatory life in prison without parole sentences of juveniles retroactively. Id. at 13. Further, Mississippi notes that the Court in Montgomery explicitly stated that Miller does not impose a fact finding requirement on the trial court prior to sentencing and "[does] not require . . . a finding of fact regarding a child's incorrigibility." Id. at 14.
SUPREME COURT PRECEDENT REGARDING SENTENCING RESTRICTIONS
Jones contends that just like any other rule barring a penalty for a category of offenders, the permanent-incorrigibility rule announced by the Supreme Court in Miller requires a sentencing court to resolve the question of whether the offender is a member of the eligible class. Brief of Petitioner at 13. Jones asserts that while the states may craft their own procedures for finding corrigibility or incorrigibility, they must, at minimum, make an "evident ruling on [the] question of permanent incorrigibility." Id. at 14. Jones cites several Supreme Court precedents which require trial courts to determine whether an offender is a member of a class eligible for special sentencing restrictions. Id. at 21–22. Specifically, Jones cites Ford v. Wainwright, where the Court barred death sentences for the insane; Atkins v. Virginia, which barred death sentences for "intellectually disabled" offenders; and Enmund v. Florida, which barred death sentences for some felony murderers who did not kill, attempt to kill, or intend to kill. Id. Jones notes that in each of these cases, the Court required trial courts to determine whether an offender falls under the respective excluded category. Id. at 23. Jones asserts that both Miller and Montgomery create a class of offenders—corrigible juvenile murderers—who may not be sentenced to life without parole for their crimes. Id. Thus, Jones argues, the Court's holdings in Miller and Montgomery require trial courts to determine that an offender is permanently incorrigible before permitting a sentence of life without parole. Id.
Mississippi contends that Miller only establishes that the Eighth Amendment prohibits mandatory life without parole sentences for convicted juvenile murderers and requires individualized sentencing for such offenders. Brief for Respondent at 15. Mississippi argues that Miller is distinguishable from cases such as Ford, Atkins, and Enmund, because, in each of those cases, the Court opined outright that specific classes of offenders were ineligible for certain penalty. Id. at 18. But here, Mississippi asserts, the analogy drawn by Miller between life without parole for juveniles and capital punishment for adults implies that trials courts are not required to make a factual finding of permanent incorrigibility because there is no similar requirement in capital cases despite the Court requiring “that the death penalty [be] reserved only for the most culpable defendants committing the most serious offenses.” Id. at 39–40. Mississippi further asserts that the primary distinction drawn by the Court in Miller is between discretionary sentencing regimes and mandatory schemes. Id. at 19. Mississippi notes that because Miller uses discretionary schemes as a benchmark for what is constitutional in contrast to mandatory schemes, it would be surprising if the Court considered discretionary schemes to also be unconstitutional. Id. at 21. Mississippi contends that Miller only requires individualized sentencing for juvenile offenders which allows factors such as youth and its attendant characteristics to be considered before a sentence of life without parole is handed down. Id. Mississippi further argues that while Miller identifies various factors which could be considered, and while states such as Mississippi require trial courts to consider these factors, Miller itself does not require such an analysis. Id. at 22. Thus, Mississippi argues that the trial court fulfilled its constitutional duty by providing Jones with an individual sentencing and was not required to make a determination regarding whether Jones was a member of a special class of offenders. Id. at 23.
POTENTIAL INTRUSION ON STATE SOVEREIGNTY
The American Bar Association (“ABA”), in support of Jones, argues that requiring states to find that a juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible before imposing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole does not unduly encroach on federalism. Brief of Amicus Curiae The American Bar Association, in support of Petitioner at 11. The ABA emphasizes that though state legislatures have sentencing flexibility, they do not have “unfettered discretion.” Id. at 11. For example, the ABA notes that the Supreme Court has categorically barred capital punishment for insane or intellectually disabled individuals. Id. Moreover, the ABA argues that the Supreme Court has suggested that life without parole is more akin to the death penalty than other sentences. Id. at 11, n.14. Thus, the ABA suggests that the Eighth Amendment does prohibit a life without parole sentence for a non-incorrigible juvenile offender. Id. at 12. Lastly, the ABA assures that the proposed requirement would not unduly encroach on federalism because states would still have significant discretion on the method of determining whether a juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible. Id.
Indiana and several states (“the States”), in support of Mississippi, argue that Jones’ proposed rule would unduly intrude on state sovereignty because such a requirement would categorically bar life without parole sentences for non-incorrigible juvenile offenders. Brief of Amici Curiae Indiana et al., in Support of Respondent at 11. The States contend that from the founding of the United States, state legislatures had significant discretion in imposing punishment by weighing the various goals of the criminal justice system. Id. at 12. The States argue that the Eighth Amendment traditionally only limited “methods, rather than the proportionality, of punishment.” Id. at 6. While the current Supreme Court jurisprudence does create a proportionality analysis, the States contend that the proportionality analysis is highly narrow and deferential to the state legislature, and only prohibits “extreme sentences that are grossly disproportionate to the crime;” the only punishment exempt from this analysis is the death penalty. Id. at 7–8. The States assert that the basis for this deference is rooted in federalism—the various state legislatures are more capable than the Supreme Court in setting proper sentences for violations of their criminal codes. Id. at 7. The States argue that a life without parole sentence for a non-incorrigible juvenile offender is not categorically extreme and grossly disproportionate; therefore, the proposed requirement would unduly intrude on the state legislature’s authority to prescribe punishment and balance the numerous goals of criminal justice. Id. at 21.
EFFECTS ON TRANSPARENCY AND CLOSURE FOR VICTIMS’ LOVED ONES
A group of Jones’ family members and others, Madge Jones et al. (“Madge Jones”), in support of Jones, argues that requiring a state to find a juvenile offender permanently incorrigible before imposing life without parole would promote transparency in the criminal justice system, which helps victims’ loved ones receive closure. Brief of Amicus Curiae Madge Jones et al., in support of Petitioner at 11. Madge Jones states that transparency is a valuable goal in sentencing because it helps promote “certainty, predictability, and objectivity.” Id. Moreover, Madge Jones adds transparency would encourage victims’ loved ones to participate in the system and voice their concerns. Brief of Madge Jones et al., at 12. Madge Jones emphasizes that this requirement promotes closure for the victims’ loved ones by ensuring that a sentence results from “a court’s reasoned, transparent explanation of its specific finding of irreparable corruption and acknowledgement of victims’ views and testimonies from the sentencing authority.” Id. at 13. The Juvenile Law Center et al., in support of Jones, further suggests that transparency would help avoid racial bias during sentencing. Brief of Amici Curiae Juvenile Law Center et al., in Support of Petitioner at 21, 24.
The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers and Arizona Voice for Crime Victims (“Victims’ Voice”), in support of Mississippi, agree that close for victims’ loved ones is an important goal but disagree that a finding of permanent incorrigibility would further that goal. Brief of Amici Curiae National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers and Arizona Voice for Crime Victims, in Support of Respondent at 4. Victims’ Voice argues that accepting Jones’ proposed requirement would negatively affect victims’ loved ones by jeopardizing the finality of current juvenile life without parole sentences. Id. at 4–5. Victims’ Voice contends that if the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of Jones, the court would reopen sentencing procedures in other cases and victims’ loved ones might relive trauma by participating in the new proceedings. Id. at 4–5. Victims’ Voice asserts that while juveniles as a whole have a high propensity for immaturity, some juveniles commit heinous acts with intent to bring about their results. Id. Further, Victims’ Voice notes that some juveniles—such as 17-year-olds—are more mature than the average young adult. Id. at 10. Thus, Victims’ Voice argues that determining the best sentencing should “be done on a case-by-case basis, and should not be based purely on chronological age alone.” Id.