Authors

  1. Maynard, Frances PhD, FNP-BC, MBE
  2. Percy, Melanie RN, PhD, CPNP, FAAN

Article Content

To the Editor:

 

In 2020, in this journal, we published "Childhood and Criminal Responsibility, Can a 9-Year-Old Be a Murderer?" (Maynard & Percy, 2020). In our article, we asserted that U.S. jurisprudence has much to learn from neuroscience and the international courts, that children are different physiologically than adults, and that incarceration for life for a child is completely inappropriate and we are one of the only countries in the world that does this.

 

A recent legal case shows us that nothing has advanced in the United States. A recent legal case, Jones v. Mississippi (2021), illustrates how U.S. courts, at the highest levels, fail to appreciate the emotional development and maturity of children. They continue to judge juveniles by standards they are not capable of upholding.

 

The Supreme Court was tragically uninformed when they ruled on Jones v. Mississippi (2021). This case upheld the sentencing of life without parole, for a man convicted of a murder when he was only 15 years old. The majority decision was based on Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 483. Judge Kavanaugh writing for the majority wrote: "In Miller, the Court mandated 'only that a sentencer follow a certain process-considering an offender's youth and attendant characteristics-before imposing' a life-without-parole sentence" (Jones v. Mississippi, 2021).

 

To "consider an offender's youth," a judge must appreciate the cognitive development of adolescents. Over the past few decades, the Supreme Court of the United States has accepted that juveniles are not adults. Research has shown the limited ability of children to control impulsive behavior. This is one of the hallmarks of adolescent development: They are impulsive. When adolescents have been abused throughout their childhood by the people they depend on for protection and support, they are even less able to think clearly in moments of stress. Indeed, there have been several recent court rulings that recognize juveniles are less culpable than adults for violent crimes. Some harsh punishments for deeds perpetrated by children were determined by U.S. Courts to be unconstitutional, cruel, and unusual punishment. As we observed in our article, "The focus on juvenile justice should be toward rehabilitation[horizontal ellipsis]" (Maynard & Percy, 2020, p. 65).

 

This Supreme Court ruling detailed the case of Brett Jones, who less than 1 month after his 15th birthday stabbed his grandfather to death. The court did not consider Mr. Jones's abysmal childhood. After leaving his alcoholic father who abused his mother, he went to live with a stepfather who abused him and his younger brother; after a fight with his stepfather, he was sent to his grandparents, who lived in a different state. The disruption prevented him from getting the medication he needed for mental health issues, including hallucinations (Smith, 2020). When his grandfather hit him during an argument, Brett lost control and lashed out at his final abuser. The court focused only on the facts of the case, not the 15-year-old's intolerable living conditions. He was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (Jones v. Mississippi, 2021).

 

Mr. Jones, now 31 years old, has been in prison for more years than he lived on the outside. The prison administrators describe him as a "model prisoner" who has completed a high school degree. Even former prosecutors wrote letters to the court siding with Mr. Jones's appeal to modify his sentence. If the Supreme Court had taken into consideration the "offender's youth and attendant characteristics," they would never have upheld his sentence. The crime happened over 15 years ago, when the defendant was an abused and tortured child. This recent Supreme Court decision was authored by a justice who has been quoted in the lay press as saying "that people shouldn't be held accountable for things they do as minors" (Levin, 2021).

 

This ruling establishes a new precedent for law in the United States, which for the past two decades has been acknowledging the neuroscience of adolescence. This judgment allows lower courts to sentence juveniles to life without parole, without determining if they are capable of rehabilitation or are "incorrigible" before sentencing them. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent that this ruling violates "stare decisis," the court's general rule of upholding precedence (Jones v. Mississippi, 2021). As we noted in our article, these rulings violate international human rights.

 

References

 

Jones v. Mississippi, No. 18-1259, 593 U.S., Sotomayor, J. (2021). https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/20pdf/18-1259_8njq.pdf[Context Link]

 

Levin B (2021, April 21). Brett Kavanaugh rules children deserve life in prison with no chance of parole. Vanity Fair. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2021/04/brett-kavanaugh-life-in-prison[Context Link]

 

Maynard Frances R., Percy Melanie S. (2020). Childhood and criminal responsibility: Can a 9-year-old be a murderer?Journal of Pediatric Surgical Nursing, 9(2), 64-66. [Context Link]

 

Smith S. (2020). Mississippi man's case could affect fate of hundreds of juvenile lifers. Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. [Context Link]