When the United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling on Thursday that said a Mississippi man was not improperly sentenced because the judge at the time of the sentencing did not claim that this individual was incorrigible at the age of 15, a lot was made over the fact that the person sentenced was a juvenile at the time of the crime and the sentencing. The fact that the man in question killed his grandfather over a dispute about his girlfriend didn’t even enter into most criticism of the Court’s opinion.
In recent decades, the Supreme Court has been more lenient on those convicted of violent felonies when they were younger than the age of consent. In a complete switch, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority and put the burden of sentencing such individuals squarely on the criminal courts, and the laws drawn up for them by the states.
Kavanaugh said in the ruling it was the responsibility of states – not courts – to “make those broad moral and policy judgments” about juvenile sentencing reform.
“Jones’s argument that the sentencer must make a finding of permanent incorrigibility is inconsistent with the court’s precedents,” Kavanaugh added.
Of course, advocates for children and adolescents as well as the liberal minority on the court itself are up in arms over this particular ruling given the grilling that Justice Kavanaugh received at his confirmation hearings related to alleged actions as a teenager, actions which did not amount to a violent crime and could not be proven.
In a scathing dissenting opinion, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the court effectively gutted previous rulings that imposed new restrictions on juvenile sentencing.
“The court is fooling no one,” Sotomayor wrote, saying that without a finding of permanent incorrigibility, judges can effectively circumvent the court’s previous rulings that limited such sentences.
Sotomayor noted that 15 state courts have found that the earlier Supreme Court rulings required a finding of incorrigibility.
“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,” Sotomayor wrote.
Which, as Justice Kavanaugh writes, is really a states’ rights issue.