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More Conservative High Court Takes Up Teen Sentencing

The Supreme Court weighed Tuesday whether judges must find juvenile offenders “permanently incorrigible” before sentencing them to life in prison without the possibility of parole, reports the Wall Street Journal. It was a question left unclear by decisions that found unconstitutional sentencing schemes that imposed tough sentences without considering factors that may make youthful offenders less morally culpable or better candidates for rehabilitation than adult criminals. In 2004, Brett Jones, 15, killed his grandfather with a kitchen knife in their Mississippi home after the grandfather discovered the teen’s girlfriend with him in his bedroom. A judge considered “both mitigating and the aggravating circumstances,” and imposed life without parole. Jones’ attorney says he was not found permanently incorrigible.

The high court has issued a series of decisions limiting the severest punishments for juvenile offenders, ruling that executing offenders who were minors when they committed their crimes was unconstitutional. Conservative justices have joined the court since 2016, when by a 6-3 vote it made retroactive its rule forbidding automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Justice Samuel Alito, who often sides with prosecutors, sought to reframe the discussion toward earlier conceptions of punishment rather than the intricacies of recent precedents applying the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment to juvenile sentencing. “What would you say to any members of this court who are concerned that we have now gotten light years away from the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment and who are reluctant to go any further on this travel into space?” Alito said.