Conservative justices signal shift away from clemency for youth offenders

U.S. Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh / Getty Images • April 22, 2021 6:00 pm

The Supreme Court on Thursday made it easier to sentence juvenile murderers to life in prison without parole, ruling against a Mississippi inmate who killed his grandfather when he was 15.

The question was whether courts must find that a youth offender has no capacity for change before sentencing him to life without parole. Writing for a majority of five, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the answer is no, a defeat for defendants across the country fighting life without parole sentences imposed while they were minors.

Thursday’s decision breaks with a modern trend of clemency toward youth offenders at the High Court. It also reflects a continuing rightward shift in cruel and unusual punishment cases. The conservative justices signaled a similar rupture with precedents that favor death row inmates in a 2019 case about capital punishment.

The inmate in Thursday’s case, Brett Jones, murdered his 67-year-old grandfather Bertis Jones in August 2004 by stabbing him eight times with a steak knife. The pair had argued earlier in the day when Bertis discovered that Brett’s girlfriend had secretly been staying at the family home in Shannon, Miss. Jones was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in May 2005.

The Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers are unconstitutional in the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama. Miller left open the possibility of life without parole for juvenile defendants who are “permanently incorrigible.” Jones caught a break four years later in 2016, when the Court in Montgomery v. Louisiana said Miller also applied to juvenile murderers sentenced before 2012. Jones obtained a second sentencing hearing.

At the resentencing, Jones told the judge he grew up to be a better person and did his best to live a decent life in prison.

“I can’t change what was already done. I

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