Annie Otzen / Hulton Archive / Getty / The Atlantic

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.

Juveniles have never been treated like adults in criminal cases; juvenile courts adopt a more rehabilitative approach and juvenile records are sealed, for example. In a 2011 decision, J. D. B. v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court noted that “time and again” the justices have “observed that children ‘generally are less mature and responsible than adults,’ that they ‘often lack the experience, perspective, and judgment to recognize and avoid choices that could be detrimental to them,’ that they ‘are more vulnerable or susceptible to … outside pressures’ than adults, and so on.” In more recent years, the Court has taken account of the large body of brain-development research showing the degree to which juveniles are more impulsive, more susceptible to outside influence, and less blameworthy than adults. The American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have filed briefs based on this neuroscience, highlighting that “adolescents’ behavioral immaturity mirrors the anatomical immaturity of their brains.”

Jones’s case arises because Mississippi, along with three other states, has taken an evasive approach to the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on this practice. In its 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, the Court ruled that mandatory LWOP for juveniles is a form of cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment. Subsequently, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, in 2016, the justices held that the Miller ruling also applied retroactively to old cases, such as Jones’s. In Montgomery, the Court emphasized that not only must juvenile LWOP be discretionary, not mandatory, but it should be rare: “Sentencing a child to life without parole is excessive for all but ‘the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’”

Some states took that “irreparable” language seriously. Most states that still retain juvenile LWOP make clear that only those rare juvenile offenders whom the judge finds permanently incapable of rehabilitation can be sentenced to LWOP. Other states have required periodic parole review of juvenile LWOP sentences. Mississippi, however, along with three other states, does not require a finding of “permanent incorrigibility” before resentencing a juvenile to LWOP. The split between this small group of outlier states and the others made the issue one that attracted the justices’ attention.

When Jones received a resentencing hearing in 2015, the judge again sentenced him to life without parole, without even considering whether he was or could be rehabilitated. At the hearing, a manager from the Walnut Grove facility where Jones was incarcerated from ages 15 to 21, testified to how mature and helpful Jones was: “Brett was a—like I said, a good kid, you know. He tried to do what was the right thing, you know, and I think he did do the right thing. He got along with everybody.”

Next the judge took over and largely just added to the record the basic facts from the prosecution’s case. The judge emphasized that Jones had been convicted of stabbing his grandfather, that the crime had been “particularly brutal,” and that the jury had rejected his claim of self-defense. The judge recounted how Jones had stabbed his grandfather eight times, and had tried to hide the body and clean up the blood. The judge never discussed anything that had happened since that time.

After the judge gave his disquisition about the facts of the crime, Jones was asked if he wanted to make a statement. He said:

I really don’t—I wasn’t prepared to make any type of statement here. The only thing that I could really think to say is, I’m not the same person I was when I was 15 … And I’ve pretty much taken every avenue that I could possibly take in prison to rehabilitate myself.

He said, “Minors do have the ability to change their mentality as they get older. This isn’t to retry the case of whether I’m guilty or not guilty. The jury did find me guilty.” He concluded, “I can just try to show what I, you know, I have become—I’ve become a grown man. I’m almost 26 years old.”

Because the Mississippi judge, under state law, did not have to consider anything about Jones's potential (or current) rehabilitation, Jones's lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to decide whether a judge should be required to find a juvenile permanently incorrigible before imposing a LWOP sentence.

Jones’s case is no aberration, and when one looks more closely at juvenile LWOP cases, one sees large numbers of flawed, unsupported sentences. Over almost the past three decades, many juvenile LWOP sentences have been vacated, at great expense, after multiple rounds of appeals and hearings—all for a penalty that has been almost entirely discontinued in the present day. My colleagues and I at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke University recently examined the cases of 94 North Carolina juveniles, ages 13 to 17 at the time of their offenses, who were sentenced to LWOP. Of those, 49 are currently still serving LWOP sentences.

What makes North Carolina so different from Mississippi, though, is that of the 94 juvenile offenders, 45 have so far been resentenced to non-LWOP sentences. In almost every case, when courts have considered new evidence, they have found that juveniles are capable of rehabilitation and do not deserve LWOP.

Further, in North Carolina, juvenile LWOP sentencing has markedly declined. Since 2011, there have been only five such sentences. The practice has all but disappeared. Where it persists is in a handful of counties with prosecutors who have a history of seeking this sentence. In other words, these sentences are not a function of murder rates, but rather prosecutorial discretion.

Juvenile offenders can and often will be rehabilitated, at great benefit to society. In contrast, juvenile LWOP has a wide range of costs. States spend tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars on such punishments; after all, juvenile lifers by definition are likely to serve more years in prison than any other prisoners. My colleagues and I estimated savings of $129 million if the state of North Carolina replaced juvenile LWOP with parole eligibility.

Juvenile LWOP is very much out of line with contemporary values and neuroscience research. The justices should make even clearer than they have already that juvenile LWOP has no place, or only a tenuous place at best, in our country, just as it has been abolished in every single other country in the world.

This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.

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