Op-Ed: The immorality of sentencing a 15-year-old to prison forever

Close-up of metal cuffs around the ankles of a juvenile respondent in court
The Supreme Court has said that young offenders’ brains are still developing and that to lock them up for life is profoundly unjust if they are capable of rehabilitation.
(Los Angeles Times)
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When the Supreme Court takes up the case of Jones vs. Mississippi on Tuesday, its task should be simple.

Brett Jones was barely 15 when he killed his grandfather in 2004 during an argument. He was a profoundly traumatized kid who had fled a violent home only to find himself in circumstances he again perceived as life-threatening. A Mississippi court sentenced him to serve the rest of his life in prison, with no chance of release.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly and clearly stated that sentencing a child who is capable of redemption to life imprisonment without possibility of parole violates the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The court has explained, backed by science and common sense, that young offenders’ crimes are so frequently the product of their still-developing brains that to lock them up forever is profoundly unjust if they are capable of rehabilitation.


As someone who works on criminal justice issues through a right-of-center lens, I believe it is also deeply immoral. Only in the rarest of cases, the court has said, where a child is found incapable of rehabilitation, may a child receive a life without parole sentence.

That the Jones case has to be resolved by the Supreme Court is surprising, given its rulings in Miller vs. Alabama and Montgomery vs. Louisiana, which prohibit life without parole sentences for youthful offenders like Jones, who are clearly capable of rehabilitation.

But the Mississippi courts have refused to follow Supreme Court precedents, allowing Jones’ sentence to stand despite the fact that no court has actually found him permanently incorrigible as required by the Constitution. That is the issue the court is being asked to clarify again. In fact, Jones has presented overwhelming evidence that he has demonstrated remorse, rehabilitation and redemption during his 16 years in prison.

His case gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to restate a settled principle: No child may be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole unless the sentencing court determines that he is the rare individual who is beyond rehabilitation.

What’s more, the Supreme Court’s recognition that only the rare young offender is beyond redemption is being widely recognized in state legislatures and borne out by evidence. The number of states banning life without parole sentences for juveniles has grown from just five in 2012 to 23 plus the District of Columbia now, which clearly shows that abandoning the practice is both the legal and moral thing to do.

Most important, former juvenile lifers who have received parole and have rejoined society are doing well. A recent study by Montclair State University examined the data and outcomes associated with 174 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia who have been released. The study found a recidivism rate of just 1% in this group and determined that releasing these individuals would save $9.5 million in correctional costs over the first decade of their release alone.


The Supreme Court’s decisions mandating second chances for youthful offenders who have the potential to be rehabilitated are in line with conservative values, which support the merciful treatment of children, compassion, fiscal responsibility and a commitment to public safety. And we have seen empirically that investment in rehabilitation, education and support for vulnerable populations of children — as opposed to levying severe punishments — is what actually makes our country safer.

Brett Jones’ case affords the Supreme Court another opportunity to uphold precedent and state again that no child may be sentenced to life without parole unless he is found incapable of rehabilitation.

Correctional officers, family members and others have testified in recent years to Jones’ deep remorse for his crime and to his growth, maturity and productivity in prison. The court should afford a hard-earned second chance to a young man who has proven himself to be worthy of it. Our conservative values demand nothing less.

Arthur Rizer is the director of criminal justice policy at the R Street Institute. He is also a former federal prosecutor and police officer.