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Supreme Court won't impose new limits on juvenile life sentences

The court ruled that judges don't have to find a juvenile offender is "permanently incorrigible" before handing down a life sentence.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined Thursday to impose new restrictions on sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

By a 6-3 vote, the court upheld a life sentence for a Mississippi man, Brett Jones, who was 15 when he used a knife to kill his grandfather during an argument.

Nine years ago, the Supreme Court said mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment because such punishments failed to take into account a youthful offender's immaturity. But the ruling allowed life sentences if the judge or jury had discretion to impose a lesser punishment.

A separate case extended that ruling to juveniles already convicted and sentenced.

Jones argued that the earlier rulings required those doing the sentencing to determine whether a juvenile offender was "permanently incorrigible," but Thursday's decision said no such finding is necessary.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the majority opinion, said the kind of discretionary sentencing followed by Mississippi "has resulted in numerous sentences less than life without parole for defendants who otherwise would have received mandatory life-without-parole sentences."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan. She wrote that the court's earlier rulings said a lifetime sentence for a juvenile offender is disproportionate for all but the rarest children whose crimes represent irreparable corruption.

"The question is whether the state, at some point, must consider whether a juvenile offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation sufficient to merit a chance at life beyond the prison in which he has grown up. For most, the answer is yes," she wrote.