In addition to its status as the world's largest jailer, the United States is an extreme outlier in its juvenile justice and sentencing practices. As recently as 2005, the United States permitted juvenile execution, and today the United States is the only nation that allows children to be sentenced to life without parole. In the last fifteen years, in a series of cases known as the Miller trilogy, the Supreme Court had been slowly chipping away at the nation's use of the most extreme juvenile sentences-the death penalty and life without parole. That process came to an abrupt end this past term with the Court's decision in Jones v. Mississippi. While not a surprise, the Jones decision was a blow to the juvenile justice community and certainly to Brett Jones himself. Youth advocates have decried the Jones decision as "barbaric," "abhorrent," and "ludicrous," but, as I argue in this Essay, ultimately Jones is a loss for the Court and its institutional reputation-perhaps more so than the juvenile justice community. In the last two decades, juvenile advocates have been very successful at educating the public about juveniles' diminished culpability and enhanced capacity for rehabilitation-and at translating that education into policy changes at the state level. There is reason to hope such changes will continue notwithstanding the disappointing realities of Jones.
This Essay proceeds in three Parts. Part I briefly describes the Miller trilogy, the question presented in Jones, and the holding in Jones-at least as the majority presents it. Part II analyzes the Jones decision, identifying the ways in which it is an enormous break from precedent, woefully out of touch with the realities of criminal justice, and cruel in its language of indifference. Part III turns to the question of how juvenile advocates might proceed in the aftermath of Jones, mapping out a path for sustained reform in legislative, judicial, and executive bodies. By way of conclusion, I examine an avenue for challenging extreme juvenile sentences that the Court itself raised in dicta and query the viability of this path.
Cara H. Drinan, Jones v. Mississippi and the Court’s Quiet Burial of the Miller Trilogy, 19 OHIO ST. J. CRIM. L. 181 (2021).