Closing the Door on Permanent Incorrigibility: Juvenile Life Without Parole After Jones v. Mississippi

By Juliet Liu

In April 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Jones v. Mississippi, its latest opinion in a line of cases addressing when, if ever, a child should be sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole or release.  Although Jones purported to resolve division among lower courts over the findings that a sentencing court must make about a child defendant’s character and prospects for reform and rehabilitation, the decision will likely lead to further disagreement among courts.

This Note argues that although the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence has protected children from harsh sentences, it has also opened a Pandora’s box.  By introducing the idea of permanent incorrigibility—that is, that any child could be found to be permanently incapable of change—the Court invited lower courts to engage in a dangerous predictive game.  This Note argues that the question of whether permanent incorrigibility is the correct standard is the wrong debate to have.  Although this Note endorses the importance of judicial discretion in sentencing, it posits that permanent incorrigibility is not a question of discretion because it is an impossible determination.

This Note ultimately argues that although critics of Jones are correct to condemn the decision for not requiring a more stringent standard, the problem began much earlier with the introduction of the permanent incorrigibility principle.  To counter the inconsistency that Jones is likely to cause, this Note argues that the Court can—and should—issue a categorical ban on juvenile life without parole.  In the interim, this Note also proposes two smaller fixes that states can implement.