Jones v Mississippi

Jones v Mississippi:

Life without parole is only permissible for the permanently incorrigible youth, but a finding of permanent incorrigibility is not required before imposing a life-without-parole sentence on a defendant-youth.

Brett Jones was sentenced by a Mississippi court to mandatory life without parole in 2004 for a murder he committed when he was 15 years old. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for offenses committed before the age of 18 violates the Eighth Amendment, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that Miller applied retroactively on state collateral review and ordered a resentencing for Brett.

At the resentencing, Brett’s attorney argued that the resentencing court should not reimpose life-without-parole because Brett’s chronological age and the hallmark features of youth diminished the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentence. The court, nonetheless, again resentenced Brett to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Mississippi appellate courts affirmed.

Brett appealed to the United Supreme Court arguing that a court that imposes a life-without-parole sentence for a crime committed by a juvenile defendant must make a separate factual finding that the defendant is permanently incorrigible or at least provide an on-the-record sentencing explanation with an implicit finding that the defendant is permanently incorrigible, which the Mississippi resentencing court failed to do.
What did Jones Decide?

The Supreme Court disagreed. In an opinion delivered by Justice Kavanaugh, the Court held that a court imposing a life-without-parole sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile is not required to make a specific finding of permanent incorrigibility or to provide an on-the-record sentencing explanation with an implicit finding of incorrigibility. Justice Kavanaugh noted that, in Montgomery v Louisiana, the Court had previously stated that a finding of fact on a child’s permanent incorrigibility was not required when sentencing to life without parole. All that is required by Miller and Montgomery, Justice Kavanaugh opined, is that the sentencing court has the discretion to impose a sentence less than life without parole and that the sentencing court considers the defendant’s youth. The Mississippi court complied with these requirements when resentencing Brett to life without parole because it acknowledged that it had discretion to impose a lesser sentence and it considered factors “relevant to the child’s culpability.”

Justice Kavanaugh opined that the opinion does not disturb Miller’s ruling that a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for an offense committed as a youth violates the Eighth Amendment or Montgomery’s ruling that Miller applies retroactively. But the opinion creates a conundrum: Montgomery states that, under Miller, life-without-parole is permissible only as applied to the small percentage of offending youth who are irreparably corrupt, and Montgomery applied Miller retroactively, which means that Miller announced a substantive rule (because it was not a “watershed” procedural issue); a substantive rule generally (and sensibly) requires a substantive determination. Justice Thomas, concurring in the judgment only, recognized this “irreconcilable” contradiction and opined that Montgomery should be overruled because (among other reasons) Miller announced a procedural rule, not a substantive one. 

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan, dissented. The Justice concluded that the majority opinion “guts” Miller’s essential holding that lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest children whose crimes reflect “irreparable corruption” and Montgomery’s conclusion that sentencing discretion is necessary to “separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not.” The majority opinion mischaracterized the holding and reasoning of Miller, Justice Sotomayor reasoned, when it concluded that Miller requires only a discretionary, not a mandatory, procedure for juvenile-life-without-parole sentencing. This, according to the Justice, amounted to a complete abandonment of Miller and Montgomery.

What Does Jones Mean for
Michigan Cases?

The decision raises a question: What does Jones mean for juvenile-life-without-parole cases in Michigan? Importantly, Jones provides that its ruling does not preclude the States from imposing additional sentencing limits in cases involving juveniles, including categorically prohibiting life-without-parole sentences for offenders under 18 or requiring extra factual findings before sentencing a juvenile offender to life without parole. 

Given these statements, Tina Olson, SADO’s Juvenile Lifer Unit Manager, does not expect great changes coming from Jones in Michigan.

“I’m disappointed with the decision in Jones. The Supreme Court could have used the case to provide clarity and consistency, and continue on its path of recognizing that children are different, and deserving of appropriate protection in the criminal legal system. But in my opinion, Jones has little effect on how our Michigan cases are being litigated. The opinion in Jones is clear that states are free to provide their own protections to juveniles facing life without the possibility of parole, and Michigan’s statute sets forth the procedure we’ve been following in our litigation. Jones also emphasizes once again the similarity between mitigation in juvenile life without parole cases and death penalty cases, which reinforces the need for resources to adequately represent our clients. Nothing in Jones changes a court’s obligations to consider the child’s youth and its attendant characteristics.” Tina Olson, Juvenile Lifer Unit Manager.

We will be on the lookout for developments following Jones as we continue seeking justice for children sentenced to life without parole in Michigan.

The Jones opinion is available at

by John Zevalking
Associate Editor