- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that states can sentence juveniles to life without parole, in a case brought by a Mississippi man who murdered his grandfather when he was 15 years old. 

In the 6-3 decision splitting along ideological lines, the justices rejected putting a limit on states’ ability to sentence minors to life imprisonment, saying there’s no violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, writing for the conservative majority, said the case demonstrates a “horrific tragedy” involving a homicide and a juvenile. 

“Determining the proper sentence in such a case raises profound questions of morality and social policy. The states, not the federal courts, make those broad moral and policy judgments in the first instance when enacting their sentencing laws,” he said.

Richard Bonnie, a law professor at the University of Virginia, said the case “signals clearly that the new conservative majority of the Supreme Court will not expand the reach of the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment decisions barring harsh sentences for juveniles.”  

Brett Jones stabbed his grandfather to death in 2004 after he kicked Jones’ girlfriend out of the house. She had been caught staying there secretly.

Jones was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole under the state’s mandatory sentencing guidelines.

The Supreme Court, since Jones’ conviction, had ruled states cannot sentence juveniles to life in prison without parole under mandatory guidelines, reasoning that judges must have discretion to issue a lesser punishment.

Jones got a new sentencing hearing based on that ruling, but he still was sentenced to life without parole. He took his challenge to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Mississippi court must determine he is unable to be rehabilitated before imposing the same sentence. 

But the high court ruled Thursday that, because the Mississippi judge acknowledged he could reduce the sentence, there was no violation of Jones’ constitutional rights. 

The justices said they were not agreeing or disagreeing with Jones’ sentence, but ruling only that states do not have to make further findings to impose a life sentence without parole for a minor.

“Our holding today is far from the last word on whether Jones will receive relief from his sentence. Jones contends that he has maintained a good record in prison and that he is a different person now than he was when he killed his grandfather,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote. “Our decision allows Jones to present those arguments to the state officials authorized to act on them, such as the state legislature, state courts, or governor.”

The court’s three Democratic appointees disagreed with the court’s six Republican appointees.

In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that courts have treated juveniles differently than adults, pointing to the death penalty. She said Jones grew up in an abusive home and committed the horrific crime just days after his 15th birthday.

“His crime, while terrible, appears to have been the product of ‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity,’” she said. 

Justice Stephen G. Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan joined the dissent.

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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