Court Battles

Supreme Court weighs limits to juvenile life sentences

Greg Nash

The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a Mississippi case that looks at the constitutional limits of sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole.

At issue is whether handing down such sentences without first determining if the defendant is incapable of rehabilitation violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Defendant Brett Jones received a life sentence without parole for murdering his grandfather with a kitchen knife in 2004 during a domestic dispute. Jones, who was then 15, told a Mississippi state court that he acted in self-defense.

Mississippi is among a handful of states that allows juveniles to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole without a finding that the defendant is “permanently incorrigible.” But a half-dozen other states say this approach violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

David Shapiro, an attorney for Jones, told the justices on Tuesday that his client has been denied “the chance to show that he wasn’t permanently incorrigible in any kind of meaningful way,” in violation of the Supreme Court’s prior interpretation of how the Eighth Amendment applies to minors.

“So whatever form the determination should take, Mississippi’s courts need to answer the question they have evaded: Is Brett Jones permanently incorrigible?” Shapiro said.

The Justice Department has urged the justices to side with Mississippi and uphold the state’s sentencing approach.

A decision in Jones’s favor would likely spark challenges by other juvenile offenders currently serving life sentences without parole.

The case, Jones v. Mississippi, is expected to be decided by the end of term in June.

Tags Brett Jones juvenile life sentences juvenile lifers Mississippi Supreme Court

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