In 2005, when Brett Jones was convicted of murder in Mississippi, his sentence was an automatic one: life without parole. No judge or juror could advocate for him to get anything less. Mississippi, like many other states, had adopted mandatory life without parole for first-degree murder. What makes Jones’s case, which the Supreme Court will hear next month, particularly urgent is that he was just 15 years old at the time of the crime.
Juvenile life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences are an abomination, and this case offers the justices a chance to do the right thing, and hasten the punishment’s demise. If they do not, states such as Mississippi will continue to flout the Constitution by allowing poorly supported juvenile LWOP sentences.
Juvenile LWOP sentences are unheard-of across the rest of the world. Today, the United States is the only country that allows this practice—it is banned everywhere else and prohibited by human-rights treaties that most other nations have signed on to.
To be sure, juvenile LWOP is not common in the U.S. either; as of 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, about 2,000 people were in prison with such sentences. Most were sentenced in the 1990s, when states adopted juvenile LWOP statutes in response to unsubstantiated concerns about juvenile “super-predators.” In recent years, many states have passed laws doing away with LWOP for juveniles. Virginia, for example, recently passed a law requiring that juveniles be eligible for parole after 20 years. Today, 23 states and the District of Columbia do not permit LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders.