National Policy
July 12, 2022

Jones v. Mississippi

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In the past few months, the United States Supreme Court has been discussed quite a bit with the confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barret and the election-related cases that might come before her. While these issues are important, the majority of cases that will be heard this term are not related to the 2020 election. But, these less noticed cases are nonetheless significant. One such case, Jones v. Mississippi, is the next in a line of four very important cases affecting juvenile sentencing, the first of which was argued in 2005. The holding in Jones promises to answer the question of whether a sentencing judge is required to make a determination of “permanent incorrigibility,”  or incapability of rehabilitation, before sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole. The alternative is that consideration of youth-related factors would suffice, meaning that capacity for rehabilitation would be just one possible factor among many that could potentially be taken into account. 

Jones stems from the sentencing of Brett Jones, a boy from Mississippi who stabbed his grandfather to death when he was only 15 years old. Jones was convicted of capital murder in Lee County, Mississippi in 2004 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. 16 years later, Jone is 31 years old, and his case recently made its way to the highest court of the land. The case was argued on election day of this year (November 3), although it will likely take many months for the Justices to issue an opinion. When it is handed down, the opinion will not only shape sentences of many youth to come, but it will also be indicative of how we as a society view juvenile offenders and the possibility of redemption. The Court should take account of important precedent, specifically the precedent laid out by two major cases: Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana. Because the language from these two cases makes clear that permanent incorrigibility is a requirement for issuing a sentence like Jones’, the Court should rule in favor of Brett Jones. 

Understanding the context behind Jones’ sentence and the precedent relevant to his case requires an examination of the history of juveniles and crime. In the 19th century, juveniles above the age of seven were treated like anyone else when they commited crimes, however petty. For the most part, they were sentenced in the same courts as adults to the same prisons as adults. However, there were some iterations of more “youth oriented” punishments emerging, mostly because reformers recognized the moral and cognitive disparities between kids and adults. Punishments like out-of-home placement (into something like a group home) and probation were becoming more common, yet there was no widely accepted means of dealing with juveniles who ran afoul of the law.

In 1899, the need for systematic change was recognized, and the first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Illinois. Other jurisdictions quickly caught on, and juvenile courts began blossoming all over the United States, coined as “parens patriae” — the state as parent. These courts tended to be more lenient and rehabilitation-oriented than adult courts of the era. This raised some concern, since judges in the courts were given a lot of discretion, and sentences could vary drastically based on factors that shouldn’t have been influencers. Where was the formality? The consistency? The justice? 

At first, reforms aimed to provide greater forms of protection for juveniles, such as requirements for hearings if there was to be a transfer to adult court and rights to due process. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a push to be “tough on crime.” Juveniles who committed serious crimes were frequently charged as adults, as was conventional in the 1800s. This shift was driven by laws that provided for mandatory transfers to adult court. 

In 2003, a boy named Evan Miller was transferred from juvenile court to adult court and sentenced to life without parole for murder in Alabama. He was 14 at the time of the murder. Miller filed a motion for a new trial and was denied, but the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. It was argued in 2012, and in a 5-4 decision, the Court held that, with few exceptions, it is unconstitutional for juveniles to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), the Court decided that Miller applies retroactively, meaning that even though Jones was sentenced before Miller was decided, the Miller holding should be applied to his sentence. 

Brett Jones, after convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole, filed for post-conviction relief. The petition made its way up to the Mississippi State Supreme Court, which ruled that Jones was entitled to a resentencing at the circuit court level. After a resentencing hearing, however, the judge upheld Jones’s sentence, saying that even after a consideration of Miller and Montgomery, the sentence was still constitutional. Jones appealed this decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In his brief to the Court prior to the oral argument, Jones’s counsel argued that in Miller, the Court determined that the only way that a juvenile can be sentenced to life without parole is if he is deemed “permanently incorrigible.” This finding was supposed to be extremely rare, noted Justice Kagan writing for the Miller majority, because such a finding “requires “distinguishing . . . between ‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’” Later, in Montgomery, the Court confirmed that “Miller . . . bar[red] life without parole . . . for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” The language in these opinions makes clear that permanent incorrigibility is a required factor for the sentencing of a juvenile to life without parole, not an optional one as the state of Mississippi suggests in Jones

Yet in the post-Miller and Montgomery resentencing of Jones, even though Jones constantly asserted with evidence that he was not one of those permanently incorrigible offenders who could be constitutionally sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, the sentencing judge made no determination of permanent incorrigibility. Instead, the judge upheld the initial sentence, citing the consideration of “youth related factors” in the sentencing. In a blatant misinterpretation of Miller and reliance on admittedly irrelevant factors, the 

Court wrote that “Miller requires that the sentencing authority consider both mitigating and the aggravating circumstances. And I would note that these are not really terms used in the Miller opinion, but I think they are an easy way for us to identify those considerations.” Although aggravating and mitigating circumstances can be very useful to judges when making sentencing decisions, Miller requires capacity for change to be specifically considered as well. 

During oral argument, Mississippi maintained that consideration of “youth related factors” implies a consideration of incorrigibility. That view is a stretch. It is true that these factors can be used to formulate a finding of permanent incorrigibility (or not), but there is more to the picture. And again, Miller and Montgomery make clear that there needs to be a finding of permanent incorrigibility — you can’t just assume that the judge made that consideration, especially since the permanent incorrigibility rule was one that would have been unfamiliar to judges hearing state cases in Mississippi.  

Jones claims that the evidence of his lack of permanent incorrigibility — that is, the possibility that he could change his character over time — was very strong and that the trial court, if properly putting it into consideration, would have no choice but to resentence him. Once again, in order to have to be sentenced to life without parole, the judge would have had to find that he was one “the rarest of juvenile offenders . . . whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” However, Jones argues that that was not and is not the case. First of all, his brief notes that he was only 15 when he committed the crime. “Thus, as this Court repeatedly has recognized, his “character [was] not as ‘well-formed’ as an adult’s; his traits [we]re ‘less fixed’ and his actions [we]re less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].” The evidence provided is assuming that Jones had the maturity of an average 15-year-old, but there is little-to-nothing suggesting that he did not. The circuit court used faulty reasoning regarding Jones’s sexual history to paint him as abnormally mature, but Jones refuted that well, noting the differences between mental maturity and biological maturity. 

The central theme of Miller is that even those who commit these types of crimes are capable of redemption; it is not the prerogative of the sentencing judge to make a determination that certain crimes are, by definition, committed by irredeemable juveniles. The judge needs to examine the person who committed the crime, and in the case of Brett Jones, there is nothing to suggest permanent incorrigibility. At his resentencing hearing, a Mississippi correction officer testified that he has been a model prisoner who has expressed remorse, avoided much trouble, and sought out education and psychiatric help. None of these actions are characteristic of a human who is “permanently incorrigible.” 

This raises an interesting question that is similar to one that Justice Alito asked during oral argument: “Do you think that there are any human beings who are not capable of redemption?” This man, Brett Jones, committed a horrible crime when he was 15 years old. It is now apparent that he was corrigible. Is anyone at such a young age, even a murderer, incapable of personal change?” The answer is unclear, and any provided here would be incomplete and indefinite.

However, we do know, or we are at least told by the Supreme Court, that it is extremely rare for a juvenile’s crimes to “reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Unfortunately, this adage isn’t honored everywhere. Mississippi, the state of origination for this dispute, has eight of its 12 juvenile offenders convicted of capital murder since Miller sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Even if a determination of permanent incorrigibility was made in all eight of these sentencing instances, would it actually be permanent incorrigibility? Could it possibly be that eight out of these 12 kids belong to a group of “the rarest” of juvenile murderers? There are currently over 2,000 individuals who committed crimes as youth serving a life without parole sentence in the United States, even after Montgomery made clear that Miller is retroactive. Are all these people truly incorrigible? I would imagine that at least some of these prisoners have changed for the better.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court should rule in favor Brett Jones, as his sentencing court didn’t consider what it was required to consider. The Court should hold that there must be some type of sentencing procedure — some determination of permanent incorrigibility — before a juvenile is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. But, the true weight of the term “permanently incorrigible” also needs to be understood by sentencing judges across the country; it is the rare kid who is incapable of positive change for the rest of his or her life, however awful the first chapter was.