SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
BRETT JONES, PETITIONER v.
on writ of certiorari to the court of appeals of mississippi
[April 22, 2021]
Justice Sotomayor, with whom Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan join, dissenting.
Today, the Court guts Miller
567 U.S. 460
577 U.S. 190 (2016). Contrary to explicit holdings in both decisions, the majority claims that the
Eighth Amendment permits juvenile offenders convicted of homicide to be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) as long as “the sentence is not mandatory and the sentencer therefore has discretion to impose a lesser punishment.” Ante,
at 1. In the Court’s view, a sentencer never need determine, even implicitly, whether a juvenile convicted of homicide is one of “those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.” Montgomery
, 577 U. S., at 209. Even if the juvenile’s crime reflects “ ‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity,’ ” Miller
, 567 U. S., at 479, he can be sentenced to die in prison.
This conclusion would come as a shock to the Courts in Miller
’s essential holding is that “a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest children, those whose crimes reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’ ” Montgomery
, 577 U. S., at 195 (quoting Miller
, 567 U. S., at 479–480). Sentencing discretion is “necessary to separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not,” Montgomery
, 577 U. S., at 210, but it is far from sufficient. A sentencer must actually “make th[e] judgment” that the juvenile in question is one of those rare children for whom LWOP is a constitutionally permissible sentence. Miller
, 567 U. S., at 480. The Court has thus expressly rejected the notion that sentencing discretion, alone, suffices: “Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the
Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Montgomery
, 577 U. S.,
at 208 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Today, however, the Court reduces Miller
to a decision requiring “just a discretionary sentencing procedure where youth [is] considered.” Ante,
at 11. Such an abrupt break from precedent demands “special justification.” Ramos
, 590 U. S. ___, ___ (2020) (Kavanaugh, J., concurring in part) (slip op., at 6) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Court offers none. Instead, the Court attempts to circumvent stare decisis
by claiming that “[t]he Court’s decision today carefully follows both Miller
at 19. The Court is fooling no one. Because I cannot countenance the Court’s abandonment of Miller
, I dissent.
Time and again, this Court has recognized that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.” Miller
, 567 U. S., at 471.
543 U.S. 551
(2005), the Court held that the
Eighth Amendment forbids sentencing children to death because “[c]apital punishment must be limited to those offenders . . . whose extreme culpability makes them the most deserving of execution.” Id.,
at 568 (internal quotation marks omitted). Juvenile offenders “cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders” for several reasons. Id.,
at 569. First, “as any parent knows,” and as scientific and sociological studies have confirmed, juveniles are less mature and responsible than adults, which “often result[s] in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.” Ibid.
(internal quotation marks omitted). Second, juveniles are “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures” and “have less control . . . over their own environment.” Ibid.
Finally, “the character of a juvenile” is “more transitory” than that of an adult. Id.,
at 570. “[A]s individuals mature, the impetuousness and recklessness that may dominate in younger years can subside.” Ibid.
(internal quotation marks omitted). Weighed against these “signature qualities of youth,”
the penological justifications for the death penalty collapse. Id.,
at 570–571 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Next, in Graham
560 U.S. 48
(2010), this Court held that “[t]he Constitution prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.” Id.,
at 82. “To justify life without parole on the assumption that the juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society requires the sentencer to make a judgment that the juvenile is incorrigible.” Id.,
at 72. But “incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth.” Id.,
at 73 (internal quotation marks omitted). Rather, “[m]aturity can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation.” Id.,
at 79. Graham
therefore insisted that sentencers not deprive juvenile nonhomicide offenders “of the opportunity to achieve maturity . . . and self-recognition of human worth and potential” by sentencing them to die in prison. Ibid
, this Court extended Graham
to juveniles convicted of homicide. Miller
recognized that “none of what [Graham
] said about children . . . is crime-specific.” 567 U. S., at 473. Thus, taking Graham
as its “foundation stone,” Miller
reiterated that “the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.” 567 U. S., at 470–471, n. 4, 472. Miller
emphasized that LWOP is an “ ‘especially harsh punishment for a juvenile.’ ” Id
at 475 (quoting Graham
, 560 U. S., at 70). “Imprisoning an offender until he dies alters the remainder of his life ‘by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.’ ” 567 U. S., at 474–475 (quoting Graham
, 560 U. S., at 69). It is the “denial of hope” itself. Id.,
at 70 (internal quotation marks omitted).
stopped short of prohibiting LWOP for all juveniles convicted of homicide. Instead, it required sentencers to distinguish “between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate and transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” 567 U. S., at 479–480 (internal quotation marks omitted). Only those rare few in the latter category are constitutionally eligible for LWOP under Miller
. As such, before imposing a sentence of LWOP, a sentencer must actually “make that judgment,” and make it correctly. Id.,
at 480; see Adams
578 U.S. 994, 999 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., concurring in decision to grant, vacate, and remand).
Finally, in Montgomery
, this Court confirmed the substantive nature of Miller
’s prohibition on LWOP for most juveniles. Montgomery
held that Miller
applies retroactively in cases on collateral review because it “rendered life without parole an unconstitutional penalty for . . . juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth.” 577 U. S., at 208. Under the retroactivity doctrine in Teague
489 U.S. 288
(1989), a new constitutional rule is considered “substantive,” and thus retroactive, if it “alters the range of conduct or the class of persons that the law punishes.” Montgomery
, 577 U. S., at 206
(internal quotation marks omitted); see Teague
, 489 U. S., at 311 (plurality opinion). A procedural rule, on the other hand, “regulate[s] only the manner of determining the defendant’s culpability.” Montgomery
577 U. S., at 206 (emphasis deleted; internal quotation marks omitted). Such rules generally have not applied retroactively. Id.,
recognized that Miller
“has a procedural component,” in that “[a] hearing where ‘youth and its attendant characteristics’ are considered as sentencing factors is necessary to separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not.” 577 U. S., at 209–210 (quoting Miller
, 567 U. S., at 465). The Court made clear, however, that “[t]he hearing does not replace . . . Miller
’s substantive holding that life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity.” 577 U. S., at 210. Rather, the hearing “gives effect” to Miller
’s prohibition on LWOP by “enabl[ing] a prisoner to show that he falls within the category of persons whom the law may no longer punish [with LWOP].” 577 U. S., at 210.
Thus, under Miller
juvenile offenders “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.” 577 U. S., at 213.
Today, the Court distorts Miller
beyond recognition. According to the majority, “a State’s discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient” for a State to sentence a juvenile convicted of homicide to LWOP. Ante,
at 5. “[S]o long as the sentencer has discretion to ‘consider the mitigating qualities of youth’ and impose a lesser punishment,”
any juvenile convicted of homicide may be sentenced to LWOP, even if his crime reflects transient immaturity. Ante,
at 7 (quoting Miller
, 567 U. S., at 476).
It does not matter whether the sentencer meaningfully considers youth: The Court assumes it will, see ante,
at 15, but ultimately, the mere existence of “a discretionary sentencing procedure suffices,” ante,
The Court rests its conclusion on Montgomery
’s modest statement that “Miller
did not impose a formal factfinding requirement,” and so “a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility . . . is not required.” 577 U. S., at 211. This statement is the linchpin of the Court’s opinion. See ante,
at 2, 5, 7, 11–14. As the Court quietly admits in a footnote, however, Montgomery
went on to clarify that the fact “[t]hat Miller
did not impose a formal factfinding requirement does not leave States free to sentence a child whose crime reflects transient immaturity to life without parole. To the contrary, Miller
established that this punishment is disproportionate under the
Eighth Amendment.” Montgomery
, 577 U. S., at 211; see ante,
at 7–8, n. 2 (quoting the same).
was equally explicit elsewhere: “Miller
. . . did more than require a sentencer to consider a juvenile offender’s youth before imposing life without parole.” 577 U. S., at 208. Sentencing discretion and “[a] hearing where ‘youth and its attendant characteristics’ are considered as sentencing factors” are necessary to “giv[e] effect to Miller
’s substantive holding that life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity,” but they “d[o] not replace” it. Id.,
at 210. “Even if a court considers a child’s age before sentencing him or her to a lifetime in prison, that sentence still violates the
Eighth Amendment for a child whose crime reflects ‘ “unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” ’ ” Id.,
at 208. If a juvenile offender’s crime “did not reflect irreparable corruption,” his “hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.” Id.,
at 213. The Court today never addresses Montgomery
’s clear articulation of Miller
’s essential holding.
The lone statement on which the Court fixates recognizes only that Miller
does not mandate a particular procedure for considering a defendant’s youth or explaining the sentencer’s decision. Miller
certainly does not require sentencers to invoke any magic words. Using this procedural flexibility, States have adopted different approaches to Miller
’s inquiry. For instance, in some States, the prosecution must prove that a juvenile offender is permanently incorrigible beyond a reasonable doubt; in others, the sentencing judge must make a formal finding of irreparable corruption on the record. See Brief for American Bar Association as Amicus Curiae
14–15, 19–21. As the Court correctly notes, Miller
does not require any one of “those particular policy approaches.” Ante,
What is necessary, however, is “that a sentencer decide whether the juvenile offender before it is a child whose crimes reflect transient immaturity or is one of those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.” Tatum
, 580 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (Sotomayor, J., concurring in decision to grant, vacate, and remand) (slip op., at 3) (internal quotation marks omitted). That is all petitioner Brett Jones seeks. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 6 (“On the most fundamental level . . . what we need is a sentencing judge who understands that permanent incorrigibility is the dispositive rule and determines whether the defendant fits within that rule. And there are any number of ways that it could be done”); Brief for Petitioner 31 (challenging the “failure to find in any form
whether Brett is permanently incorrigible”). As Justice Thomas recognizes, “there must be a determination as to whether Jones falls within th[e] protected class” of children who are ineligible for LWOP. Ante,
at 6 (opinion concurring in judgment). Otherwise, the line between those who may be sentenced to LWOP and those who may not “is more fanciful than real.” Ibid.
The Court attempts to paper over its mischaracterization of Miller
in several ways. First, it claims that Miller
barred only “mandatory
life-without-parole sentences,” not “discretionary
life-without-parole sentences.” Ante,
at 4. Miller
did prohibit mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles. See 567 U. S., at 465. To say that Miller
is limited to mandatory LWOP sentences, however, is to ignore half of its reasoning. Miller
relied on “the confluence of . . . two lines of precedent.” Id.,
at 470. In one line of cases, the Court had interpreted the
Eighth Amendment to require that sentencers make individualized, discretionary decisions when imposing the death penalty. For instance, in Lockett
438 U.S. 586
(1978), a plurality of the Court concluded that “the sentencer, in all but the rarest kind of capital case, [can]not be precluded from considering, as a mitigating factor, any aspect of a defendant’s character or record and any of the circumstances of the offense.” Id.,
at 604 (emphasis deleted; footnote omitted). Miller
explained that mandatory LWOP sentences violate “individualized sentencing cases” like Lockett
because they “preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it.” 567 U. S., at 476–477.
The Court now pretends that Miller
ended there. It insists that all Miller
required was “a sentencing procedure similar to the procedure that this Court has required for the individualized consideration of mitigating circumstances in capital cases such as Woodson
v. North Carolina
428 U.S. 280
, 303–305 (1976) (plurality opinion), Lockett
438 U.S. 586
, 597–609 (1978) (plurality opinion), and Eddings
455 U.S. 104
, 113–115 (1982).” Ante,
at 9. Reading that conclusion, one would expect Miller
to have announced that it rested solely on those cases.
was clear, however, that it drew primarily from a different line of precedent headed by Roper
, which “adopted categorical bans on sentencing practices based on mismatches between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of a penalty,” regardless of the procedures used to impose the sentences. Miller
567 U. S., at 470. These cases set forth a substantive proportionality principle that the individualized-sentencing cases did not: “[L]ife-without-parole sentences, like capital punishment, may violate the
Eighth Amendment when imposed on children” because “the characteristics of youth, and the way they weaken rationales for punishment, can render a life-without-parole sentence disproportionate.” Id.,
Mandatory and discretionary sentencing schemes alike can produce disproportionate sentences. Regardless of how it is imposed, a juvenile death sentence is unconstitutional under Roper
and a juvenile sentence of LWOP for a nonhomicide offense is unconstitutional under Graham
. See Roper
, 543 U. S., at 575 (holding “that the death penalty cannot be imposed upon juvenile offenders”); Graham
, 560 U. S., at 74 (drawing a “clear line” against “life without parole for juvenile nonhomicide offenders”). So, too, with Miller
: No set of discretionary sentencing procedures can render a sentence of LWOP constitutional for a juvenile whose crime reflects “unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” 567 U. S., at 479 (internal quotation marks omitted).
The Court claims that Miller
relied on Roper
“for a simple proposition: Youth matters in sentencing.” Ante,
at 10. That is true, but the Court conflates two ways in which youth matters. When Miller
was decided, the Court’s individualized-sentencing cases had already firmly established “that a defendant’s youth is a relevant mitigating circumstance that must be within the effective reach of a capital sentencing jury.” Johnson
509 U.S. 350
, 367 (1993); see also Eddings
455 U.S. 104
, 116 (1982) (requiring that sentencers consider “the chronological age of a minor” and “the background and mental and emotional development of a youthful defendant”). The Miller
Court thus did not need to cite Roper
as a separate “stran[d] of precedent,” Miller
, 567 U. S., at 470, for that long-recognized proposition. It drew on Roper
instead to set a substantive limit on the imposition of LWOP on juvenile offenders, even when they commit homicide. The Court today reverses course and concludes that youth does not matter in this way.
Next, the Court exaggerates the meaning of two statements from Miller
arguing that it “mandated ‘only that a sentencer follow a certain process,’ ” rather than “ ‘categorically bar[ring] a penalty for a class of offenders or type of crime[,] as, for example, we did in Roper
.’ ” Ante,
at 7, 10 (quoting Miller
, 567 U. S., at 483). Again, Montgomery
already rejected this misinterpretation: “Miller
, it is true, did not bar a punishment for all juvenile offenders,” or all juvenile offenders convicted of certain crimes, “as the Court did in Roper
577 U. S., at 209. “Miller
did bar life without parole, however, for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” Ibid.
To “separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not,” as Miller
requires, sentencers must follow a certain process: conducting a “hearing where ‘youth and its attendant characteristics’ are considered.” 577 U. S., at 210.
That process is not an end in itself. Rather, it “gives effect to Miller
’s substantive holding that life without parole is an excessive sentence for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity.” Ibid.
Finally, the Court argues that Miller
offered nothing more than a prediction that “a discretionary sentencing procedure would help make life-without-parole sentences relatively rare.” Ante,
at 13. Miller
’s substantive rule was not a prediction. Rather, Miller
held that juvenile LWOP sentences must be rare because it is only “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” 567 U. S., at 479–480 (internal quotation marks omitted). Simply put, there are very few juveniles for whom the “ ‘signature qualities’ ” of youth do not undermine the penological justifications for LWOP. Id.,
at 476. Youth is “a time of immaturity, irresponsibility, impetuousness, and recklessness,” and, almost invariably, those “qualities are all transient.” Ibid.
(internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).
In any event, the data since Miller
prove that sentencing discretion alone will not make LWOP a rare sentence for juvenile offenders. Even after Montgomery
, Mississippi courts require only that a sentencer consider youth-related factors “in a non-arbitrary fashion” before imposing a sentence of LWOP. See, e.g., Miller
, ___ So. 3d ___, ___, 2020 WL 2892820, *5 (Miss. App., June 2, 2020). Unbound by Miller
’s essential holding, more than a quarter of Mississippi’s resentencings have resulted in the reimposition of LWOP. See Brief for Juvenile Law Center et al. as Amici Curiae
Pennsylvania, in contrast, has recognized that “Miller
requires far more than mere consideration of an offender’s age,” as “a life-without-parole sentence imposed on a juvenile is illegal” unless “the defendant will forever be incorrigible, without any hope for rehabilitation.” Commonwealth
, 640 Pa. 401, 440, 444, 163 A.3d 410, 433, 435 (2017). Pennsylvania has adopted a number of procedures to guide sentencing courts in applying Miller
’s rule, including a presumption against juvenile LWOP that the State must rebut through proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 640 Pa., at 476, 163 A. 3d, at 454–455. Fewer than 2 percent of resentencings in Pennsylvania have resulted in the reimposition of LWOP. See The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Tipping Point: A Majority of States Abandon Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Children 7 (2018) (Tipping Point).
These States’ experiences show that juvenile LWOP sentences will not be rare simply by virtue of sentencing discretion. Sentencers will not “necessarily . . . consider the defendant’s youth,” ante,
at 15, and they certainly will not necessarily conduct Miller
’s essential inquiry. If sentencing discretion is all that is required, far too many juvenile offenders will be sentenced to die in prison.[2
The Court’s misreading of Miller
is egregious enough on its own. The Court twists precedent even further, however, by distorting Miller
in a way that cannot be reconciled with Montgomery
applies retroactively under the Teague
doctrine. See ante,
at 7 (opinion of Thomas, J.). That doctrine divides new rules of constitutional law into two categories: substantive and procedural. As noted above, Montgomery
held that Miller
applies retroactively based solely on “Teague
’s first exception for substantive rules.” 577 U. S., at 200. For Montgomery
to make any sense, then, Miller
must have done more than mandate a certain procedure. Rather, it “eliminated a State’s power to . . . impose a given punishment.” 577 U. S., at 201.[3
Today, however, the Court transforms Miller
into a decision requiring only a “discretionary sentencing procedure.” Ante,
at 19. At the same time, the Court insists that it “does not disturb” Montgomery
’s holding “that Miller
applies retroactively on collateral review.” Ante,
at 19. In other words, the Court rewrites Miller
into a procedural rule and, paradoxically, maintains that Miller
was nevertheless “substantive for retroactivity purposes.” Ante,
That explanation undoes Teague
’s distinction between substantive and procedural rules. If a rule that requires only a sentencing procedure is substantive for retroactivity purposes, then this Court has improperly classified numerous sentencing rules as procedural. To take one example, in Mills
486 U.S. 367
(1988), this Court invalidated a capital sentencing procedure requiring jurors to disregard mitigating factors that were not found unanimously. That holding was procedural because it altered only “the range of permissible methods for determining whether a defendant’s conduct is punishable by death.” Schriro
542 U.S. 348
, 353 (2004). Under the Court’s logic today, however, the rule in Mills
and other rules of sentencing procedure should have applied retroactively, even though the Court has held that they do not. See Beard
542 U.S. 406
, 416–417 (2004) (holding that Mills
announced a procedural rule); Schriro
, 542 U. S., at 354 (treating as procedural the rule set forth in Ring
536 U.S. 584
(2002), that a jury, rather than a judge, must find aggravating circumstances necessary for the imposition of the death penalty). If future litigants make such arguments, it will be because the Court’s contortion of Miller
paves the way for them to do so.
Rather than read Miller
fairly, the Court reprises Justice Scalia’s dissenting view in Montgomery
requires only a “youth-protective procedure.” 577 U. S., at 225 (emphasis deleted). Justice Scalia’s view did not prevail, however. Montgomery
’s interpretation of Miller
is binding precedent, just as Miller
Any doubts the Court may harbor about the merits of those decisions
do not justify overruling them. See June Medical Services L. L. C.
, 591 U. S. ___, ___ (2020) (Roberts, C. J., concurring in judgment) (slip op., at 3) (“[F]or precedent to mean anything, the doctrine must give way only to a rationale that goes beyond whether the case was decided correctly”). As this Court has consistently reiterated, “a departure from precedent demands special justification.” Gamble
v. United States
, 587 U. S. ___, ___ (2019) (slip op., at 11) (internal quotation marks omitted); accord, Kisor
, 588 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2019) (slip op., at 25–26); Kimble
v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC
576 U.S. 446, 455–456 (2015).
The Court offers no such justification today. Nor could it. The traditional stare decisis
factors include the quality of the precedent’s reasoning, its consistency with other decisions, legal and factual developments since the precedent was decided, and its workability. See Ramos
, 590 U. S., at ___ (opinion of Kavanaugh, J.) (slip op., at 7). None supports overturning Miller
. As explained above, those decisions are firmly rooted in two lines of precedent and fundamental principles of proportionality.[4
] Subsequent legal and factual developments have reinforced their reasoning. Fifteen state courts of last resort, for instance, have recognized that Miller
announced a substantive rule barring LWOP for any juvenile whose crime does not reflect permanent incorrigibility. See Reply Brief 18, n. 6. Twenty States and the District of Columbia have changed their policies to prohibit LWOP sentences for all juvenile offenders, including a number of States that “had discretionary sentencing schemes or a mixture of both mandatory and discretionary sentences.” Brief for Former West Virginia Delegate John Ellem et al. as Amici Curiae
, O. T. 2019, No. 18–217, pp. 34–35; S. 256, 133d Gen. Assembly (Ohio 2020); Va. Code Ann. §53.1–165.1 (2020). Finally, Miller
have not proved unworkable: To the contrary, they have spurred reforms across the country while “avoid[ing] intruding more than necessary upon the States’ sovereign administration of their criminal justice systems.” Montgomery
, 577 U. S., at 211. Requiring sentencers to make an explicit or implicit determination of permanent incorrigibility before sentencing a juvenile offender to LWOP imposes no costs that justify overturning precedent.
Instead of addressing these factors, the Court simply rewrites Miller
to say what the Court now wishes they had said,
and then denies that it has done any such thing. See ante,
at 19. The Court knows what it is doing. It admits as much. Rather than try to harmonize its decision today with Montgomery
’s retroactivity holding, it confesses in a footnote that its rewriting of precedent is inconsistent with Montgomery
and basic retroactivity principles. See ante,
at 11–12, n. 4. The Court’s solution? It urges lower courts to simply ignore Montgomery
going forward. Ante,
at 11–12, n. 4
(“[T]he Court’s retroactivity precedents that both pre-date and post-date Montgomery
. . . and not Montgomery
. . . must guide the determination of whether rules other than Miller
] Instead of “disturb[ing]” Montgomery
’s retroactivity holding, ante,
at 12, n. 4, the Court attempts to bury it.
How low this Court’s respect for stare decisis
has sunk. Not long ago, that doctrine was recognized as a pillar of the “ ‘rule of law,’ ” critical to “keep the scale of justice even and steady, and not liable to waver with every new judge’s opinion.” Ramos
, 590 U. S., at ___–___ (opinion of Kavanaugh, J.) (slip op., at 1–2) (internal quotation marks omitted). Given these weighty interests, the Court “usually require[d] that a party ask for overruling, or at least obtain[ed] briefing on the overruling question,” and then “carefully evaluate[d] the traditional stare decisis
v. American Assn
. of Political Consultants, Inc.
, 591 U. S. ___, ___, n. 5 (2020) (slip op., at 9, n. 5). Now, it seems, the Court is willing to overrule precedent without even acknowledging it is doing so, much less providing any special justification. It is hard to see how that approach is “founded in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals.” Ramos
, 590 U. S., at ___ (opinion of Kavanaugh, J.) (slip op., at 2) (internal quotation marks omitted).
For present purposes, sentencers should hold this Court to its word: Miller
are still good law.[6
] See ante,
at 19 (“Today’s decision does not overrule Miller
”). Sentencers are thus bound to continue applying those decisions faithfully. Thankfully, many States have already implemented robust procedures to give effect to Miller
. In other States, the responsibility falls squarely on individual sentencers to use their discretion to “separate those juveniles who may be sentenced to life without parole from those who may not.” Montgomery
, 577 U. S., at 210. Failing to do so violates the
Brett Jones, like all juvenile offenders facing a sentence of LWOP, deserves an answer to Miller
’s essential question: whether his crime demonstrates that he is permanently incorrigible. Ordinarily, an appellate court should not pass on that question in the first instance. But the Court today guarantees that the state sentencing court will never have to give Jones an answer. It thus bears acknowledging that, based on the evidence presented below, it is hard to see how Jones is one of the rare juvenile offenders “whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Miller
, 567 U. S., at 479–480 (internal quotation marks omitted). In fact, many aspects of Jones’ crime seem to epitomize “unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Id.,
at 479 (internal quotation marks omitted); see 2018 WL 10700848, *11 (Miss., Nov. 27, 2018) (Kitchens, P. J., dissenting) (“Jones’s actions reflect [the hallmark] features [of youth] at every turn”).[7
Jones killed his grandfather just 23 days after Jones’ 15th birthday. App. 71. In his short life before the murder, Jones was the victim of violence and neglect that he was too young to escape. Jones’ biological father was an alcoholic who physically abused Jones’ mother, knocking out her teeth and breaking her nose on several occasions. Id.,
at 71–72. The two separated when Jones was two years old. Id.,
at 71. Jones’ mother then married Jones’ stepfather, who was also abusive, especially toward Jones. He beat Jones with belts, switches, and a paddle labeled “The Punisher.” Id.,
at 39–40, 78, 81. He rarely called Jones or his brother by their names, preferring cruel epithets. Id.,
at 77, 81, 101 (“[H]is favorite thing to call them was little motherf***ers”). According to Jones’ mother, Jones’ stepfather “hated Brett more because Brett reminded him of [Jones’ biological father].” Id.,
at 78. According to Jones’ grandmother, he was simply “easier to hurt and beat.” Id.,
In 2004, after Jones came home late one day, Jones’ stepfather flew into a rage and grabbed Jones by the neck, preparing to beat him with a belt. Id.,
at 128–129. This time, however, Jones fought back and told his stepfather, “No, you’re not going to hit me ever again.” Id.,
at 80. Jones took a swing at his stepfather and split open his ear. Ibid.
The police were called, and Jones was arrested.[8
Jones’ stepfather then threatened to kick out Jones’ mother and brother if Jones did not move out. Id.,
at 81. As a result, Jones’ grandparents picked him up less than two months before the murder and brought him to Mississippi. Id.,
When he moved, Jones lost access to medications that he had been taking for mental health issues. Id.,
] When he was 11 or 12 years old, Jones began cutting himself so that he “would not feel the panic and the hurt that was inside of [his] head.” Id.,
at 75. He later experienced hallucinations and was prescribed antidepressant medications. Id.,
at 92, 124. These medications were supposed to be tapered off gradually. Id.,
at 38–39. When Jones left for Mississippi, however, they were abruptly cut off.
The murder was precipitated by a dispute over Jones’ girlfriend. After Jones moved, his girlfriend ran away from her home in Florida to stay at Jones’ grandparents’ home in secret. 938 So. 2d 312, 313 (Miss. App. 2006). On the day of the murder, Jones’ grandfather, Bertis Jones, discovered that Jones’ girlfriend had been staying in their home. Ibid.
He ordered her out. Ibid.
Later that day, Jones was making a sandwich in the kitchen using a steak knife. Id.,
Jones said something disrespectful to his grandfather, who started yelling. Ibid.
The two began pushing each other, and Jones’ grandfather tried to hit him. Ibid.
Jones stabbed his grandfather with the steak knife. Ibid.
Jones’ grandfather came at Jones again, and the fight continued. Ibid.
Jones ultimately stabbed his grandfather eight times, grabbing a second knife when the first one broke. 2018 WL 10700848, *7 (Kitchens, P. J., dissenting).
No one disputes that this was a terrible crime. Miller
, however, held that “the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.” 567 U. S., at 472. Jones’ crime reflects these distinctive attributes: “That a teenager in trouble for having been caught concealing his girlfriend at his grandparents’ home would attempt to solve the problem by resorting to violence dramatically epitomizes immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks or consequences.” 2018 WL 10700848, *11 (Kitchens, P. J., dissenting).
Jones then attempted to save his grandfather by administering CPR. 938 So. 2d, at 314.
When that failed, he clumsily tried to hide what he had done. 2018 WL 10700848, *11 (Kitchens, P. J., dissenting). He was spotted walking around in plain sight, covered in blood, trembling and muttering to himself. Ibid.
When a neighbor questioned him, Jones told a feeble lie, claiming that his grandfather had left and that the blood on his clothes was “ ‘a joke.’ ” 938 So. 2d, at 314. Jones then met up with his girlfriend and attempted to hitchhike, but not to make a getaway. Instead, he was trying to go see his grandmother to tell her what had happened. Id.,
at 315. The police stopped Jones, found that he was carrying a pocket knife, and asked if it was the knife he “ ‘did it with.’ ” Ibid
. Jones replied, “ ‘No, I already got rid of it.’ ” Ibid.
He then agreed to be interviewed by three police detectives, “without invoking his right to silence or his right to counsel and without a parent or guardian present.” 2018 WL 10700848, *11 (Kitchens, P. J., dissenting). Thus, “Jones’s behavior in the immediate aftermath of his tragic actions also demonstrated his fundamental immaturity.” Ibid.
At his resentencing hearing, Jones provided evidence that not only is he capable of rehabilitation, but he had in fact already matured significantly since his crime. In more than five years in prison, Jones committed only two disciplinary infractions. App. 134–135. While incarcerated, Jones earned his GED and sought out work, becoming a “very good employee.” Id.,
at 106, 109, 153. Jones and his prison unit manager often discussed the Bible, and in time, his unit manager came to think of Jones “almost like [a] son.” Id.,
at 107. Jones confided in him that Jones “regretted” what he had done. Id.,
Jones’ grandmother (Bertis Jones’ widow) testified at Jones’ resentencing hearing and submitted an amicus
brief to this Court. She remains “steadfast in her belief that Brett is not and never was irreparably corrupt.” Brief for Madge Jones et al. as Amici Curiae
4. She speaks with Jones weekly, encouraging him as he takes college courses and serves in the prison ministry. Ibid.
Jones’ younger brother, Marty, and his other family members have also stayed by his side.
This significant body of evidence does not excuse Jones’ crime. It does mean, however, that under Miller
, there is a strong likelihood that Jones is constitutionally ineligible for LWOP. His crime, while terrible, appears to have been the product of “unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Miller
, 567 U. S., at 479 (internal quotation marks omitted). Notably, the State called no witnesses and offered no evidence at the resentencing hearing to rebut Jones’ proof that his crime reflected the “recklessness” and “impulsivity” characteristic of juveniles. Montgomery
, 577 U. S., at 207 (internal quotation marks omitted); see App. 23, 136.
In resentencing Jones to LWOP, the sentencing court failed to apply Miller
properly. Instead, it followed the instructions of the Mississippi Supreme Court, which held that “Miller
rendered [Mississippi’s] sentencing scheme unconstitutional if, and only if, the sentencing authority fails to take into account characteristics and circumstances unique to juveniles.” 122 So. 3d 698, 702 (2013). Thus, the sentencing court simply considered the “Miller
factors” as part of the “mitigating and the aggravating circumstances.” App. 149. It never addressed Miller
’s central inquiry: whether Jones is one of the rare juveniles whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption. 567 U. S., at 479–480. Because the sentencing court failed to ask and answer this critical question, Jones’ sentence should not stand.
It is important not to lose sight of what is at stake in this case. “The
Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions.” Miller
, 567 U. S., at 469 (internal quotation marks omitted). In Roper
, and Montgomery
, the Court recognized that this guarantee has special significance for children. The
Eighth Amendment does not excuse children’s crimes, nor does it shield them from all punishment. It does, however, demand that most children be spared from punishments that “giv[e] no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope.” Graham
, 560 U. S., at 79.
Jones and other juvenile offenders like him seek only the possibility of parole. Not the certainty of release, but the opportunity, at some point in their lives, to show a parole board all they have done to rehabilitate themselves and to ask for a second chance. Jones recognizes that the parole board may ultimately decide he must spend his entire life behind bars. He simply requests that the State not “mak[e] the judgment at the outset that [he] never will be fit to reenter society.” Id.,
at 75. The
Eighth Amendment requires that most juvenile offenders be given this small “hope for some years of life outside prison walls.” Montgomery
, 577 U. S., at 213.[10
At his resentencing hearing, Jones told the court, “I’m not the same person I was when I was 15. . . . I’ve become a pretty decent person in life. And I’ve pretty much taken every avenue that I could possibly take in prison to rehabilitate myself.” App. 152. “Minors do have the ability to change,” he reflected. Ibid.
He noted in closing, “If you decide to send me back without the possibility of parole, I will still do exactly what I’ve been doing for ten years. But all I can do is ask you . . . please give me just one chance to show the world, man, like, I can be somebody. I’ve done everything I could over the past ten years to be somebody. . . . I can’t change what was already done. I can just try to show . . . I’ve become a grown man.” Id
., at 153. Today, Jones is 31. His time spent in prison has now eclipsed the childhood he had outside of it.
Jones should know that, despite the Court’s decision today, what he does in life matters. So, too, do the efforts of the almost 1,500 other juvenile offenders like Jones who are serving LWOP sentences. Of course, nothing can repair the damage their crimes caused. But that is not the question. 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. See Graham
, 560 U. S., at 79. For most, the answer is yes.