Last Thursday, the Supreme Court made it easier to sentence youth to life without parole, the harshest sentence for a young person. The decision is a sharp departure from precedent established over the past decade and a half, recognizing that youth are capable of change and rehabilitation. The ruling in Jones v. Mississippi will likely mean that thousands of fully rehabilitated individuals—who were incarcerated as children—will die in prison.

Children are different from adults, a principle the Court (and science) have affirmed time and time again. Over the last decade and a half, the Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to death. Additionally, the Court found in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences, meaning sentences imposed at the verdict rather than by the discretion of the judge, are also unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s most recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana cautioned that judges should only impose LWOP in the rarest of circumstances, for “those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” It also made this ruling retroactive, allowing those who had been sentenced to LWOP as children able to have their sentences revisited.

Many states have removed LWOP as a possible sentence for a child from their books, or have no individuals serving such sentences. This is because young brains are fundamentally different and still developing. Adolescents are more likely to engage in risky and impulsive behaviors and have their peers influence them, which can cause delinquent behavior. But they are also incredibly capable of change, and most youth naturally grow out of criminal behavior. It is the rarest of cases where rehabilitation cannot occur.

So it is particularly unfortunate that Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, declared that a court does not have to reach an explicit finding of permanent incorrigibility. Instead, as long as the judge is granted discretion in sentencing, their sentence is constitutional. Kavanaugh states that he is following the precedents in Miller and Montgomery, but it seems clear to many legal scholars that the Court actually overturned the substantive findings of the previous decisions. Justice Clarence Thomas, though agreeing with the majority’s ruling, acknowledged that the Court should overrule Montgomery rather than adopt a “strained reading” of the precedent.

It is the most vulnerable communities that will be hurt by this ruling. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out, the burden will fall disproportionately on racial minorities: “70 percent of all youths sentenced to LWOP are children of color,” a trend that has only worsened in the last few years. Black children are seen as older than their white counterparts, and are more likely to be charged as adults. They are also more likely to face harsher sentences. With this ruling, it becomes even more difficult to ensure just and fair outcomes and reverse trends of racial disproportionality.

None of us remain who we were when we were 14 or 15 years old. Change and growth are fundamentally part of becoming an adult. Yet the majority’s ruling eviscerated landmark precedents that acknowledged a child’s ability to rehabilitate and change. With this ruling, judges no longer have a constitutional constraint to juvenile LWOP sentences. And sadly, many rehabilitated individuals behind bars, imprisoned as children, will now die there, with no hope of a second chance.

Image credit: Aerial Mike

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