Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Unfortunate Yet Transient Immaturity


Last week, the United States Supreme Court in a split decision made it easier to sentence children to prison without the possibility of parole. Every year, children as young as 13 are locked away for the rest of their lives in our country. There are currently over 2500 people, mostly black, mostly poor, and mostly from backgrounds of abuse, who are living their entire adult lives behind bars. There is only one country on earth where this is legal: the United States.

Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults, a worldwide recognition that children are entitled to special protection and treatment, not to mention numerous international laws banning the inhuman practice, the court has in my eyes lost any claim to morality, decency, or legitimacy it may have once had. 

I'm not proud of the USA.

What kind of monster can possibly believe that any human, let alone a child, is beyond salvation? Indeed, it is monstrous to make that kind of determination about a 15-year-old, the age Brett Jones was when he stabbed his grandfather to death after a life as a victim of abuse by multiple people in is life, including his grandfather. Defying the "judgement" of incorrigibility, Jones has while in prison completed his GED, has conducted himself as a model prisoner, and his grandmother, the wife of the man he murdered, is steadfast in her belief that he should at least have the opportunity to be released. As Jones himself says, he has done everything he can to reform himself, yet with this heartless, headless decision, all hope for him has been erased. I have no illusion that Jones is a saint, how could he be? But to condemn anyone for life for something they did when they were a child, defies science and decency.

As Justice Sotomayor writes in her dissent, citing precedent (which I've removed here for ease of reading, but which can be found here):

"First, "as any parent knows," and as scientific and sociological studies have confirmed, juveniles are less mature and responsible than adults, which "often result(s) in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions . . . Second, juveniles are "more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures" and "have less control . . . over their own environment . . . Finally, "the character of a juvenile" is "more transitory" than that of an adult. (A)s individuals mature, the impetuousness and recklessness that may dominate in younger years can subside . . . Weighed against these "signature qualities of youth," the penological justifications . . . collapse.

And:

"To justify life without parole on the assumption that the juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society require the sentencer to make a judgement that the juvenile is incorrigible . . . But "incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth." . . . Rather, "(m)maturity can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation."

I'm not a lawyer, of course, but I am an expert on children. I know that it is in the nature of youth to awake each morning a new person. I believe this is true of all humans, even as I know that some are so broken that it is best they not be left to their own devices, but both science and basic human decency tells us that all children are capable of reform.

No, the idea that any child is incorrigible is one based in ignorance and hatred. It is based on the feeble and craven justification that engaging in cruel and unusual punishment can somehow right a wrong or persuade future potential offenders from committing similar acts. The arguments in favor of throwing children in prison for the rest of their lives are flimsy veils for the real underlying motive, which is clearly pure, seething vengeance, which has nothing to do with justice, nothing to do with humanity, and leads me to conclude it is those heartless people who support life without parole for juveniles to be the true danger to society. I'm old enough to remember that the man who wrote the court's majority opinion, Justice Kavanaugh, was crying and yelling about how he should not be judged for his own youthful indiscretions during his confirmation hearing.

The Supreme Court, with this decision, proves to me that it has become a sociopathic institution, one that is incapable as currently constructed to make judgements on citizens.

Tell me, who are the monsters here? Here is Jones' full story as told by Justice Sotomayor using the evidence in the case:

Jones killed his grandfather just 23 days after Jones’ 15th birthday. In his short life before the murder, Jones was the victim of violence and neglect that he was too young to escape. Jones’ biological father was an alcoholic who physically abused Jones’ mother, knocking out her teeth and breaking her nose on several occasions. The two separated when Jones was two years old. Jones’ mother then married Jones’ stepfather, who was also abusive, especially toward Jones. He beat Jones with belts, switches, and a paddle labeled “The Punisher.” He rarely called Jones or his brother by their names, preferring cruel epithets. (“[H]is favorite thing to call them was little moth- erf***ers”). According to Jones’ mother, Jones’ stepfather “hated Brett more because Brett reminded him of [Jones’ biological father].” According to Jones’ grandmother, he was simply “easier to hurt and beat.”

In 2004, after Jones came home late one day, Jones’ stepfather flew into a rage and grabbed Jones by the neck, preparing to beat him with a belt. This time, however, Jones fought back and told his stepfather, “No, you’re not going to hit me ever again.” Jones took a swing at his stepfather and split open his ear. The police were called, and Jones was arrested. Jones’ stepfather then threatened to kick out Jones’ mother and brother if Jones did not move out. As a re- sult, Jones’ grandparents picked him up less than two months before the murder and brought him to Mississippi. 

When he moved, Jones lost access to medications that he had been taking for mental health issues.  When he was 11 or 12 years old, Jones began cutting himself so that he “would not feel the panic and the hurt that was inside of [his] head.” He later experienced hallucinations and was prescribed antidepressant medications. These medications were supposed to be tapered off gradually. When Jones left for Mississippi, however, they were abruptly cut off.

The murder was precipitated by a dispute over Jones’ girlfriend. After Jones moved, his girlfriend ran away from her home in Florida to stay at Jones’ grandparents’ home in secret. On the day of the murder, Jones’ grandfather, Bertis Jones, discovered that Jones’ girlfriend had been staying in their home. 

He ordered her out.  Later that day, Jones was making a sandwich in the kitchen using a steak knife.  Jones said something disrespectful to his grandfather, who started yelling. The two began pushing each other, and Jones’ grandfather tried to hit him. Jones stabbed his grandfather with the steak knife. Jones’ grandfather came at Jones again, and the fight continued. Jones ultimately stabbed his grandfather eight times, grabbing a second knife when the first one broke. 

No one disputes that this was a terrible crime. Miller, however, held that “the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.” Jones’ crime reflects these distinctive attributes: “That a teenager in trouble for having been caught concealing his girlfriend at his grandparents’ home would attempt to solve the problem by resorting to violence dramatically epitomizes immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks or consequences.” 

Jones then attempted to save his grandfather by administering CPR. When that failed, he clumsily tried to hide what he had done. He was spotted walking around in plain sight, covered in blood, trembling and muttering to himself. When a neighbor questioned him, Jones told a feeble lie, claiming that his grand- father had left and that the blood on his clothes was “‘a joke.’ ” Jones then met up with his girlfriend and attempted to hitchhike, but not to make a getaway. Instead, he was trying to go see his grandmother to tell her what had happened. The police stopped Jones, found that he was carrying a pocket knife, and asked if it was the knife he “‘did it with.’”  Jones replied, “‘No, I already got rid of it.’” He then agreed to be interviewed by three police detectives, “without invoking his right to silence or his right to counsel and without a parent or guardian present.” Thus, “Jones’s behavior in the immediate aftermath of his tragic actions also demonstrated his fundamental immaturity.” 

At his resentencing hearing, Jones provided evidence that not only is he capable of rehabilitation, but he had in fact already matured significantly since his crime. In more than five years in prison, Jones committed only two disciplinary infractions. While incarcerated, Jones earned his GED and sought out work, becoming a “very good employee.” Jones and his prison unit manager often discussed the Bible, and in time, his unit manager came to think of Jones “almost like [a] son.” Jones confided in him that Jones “regretted” what he had done. 

Jones’ grandmother (Bertis Jones’ widow) testified at Jones’ resentencing hearing and submitted an amicus brief to this Court. She remains “steadfast in her belief that Brett is not and never was irreparably corrupt.” She speaks with Jones weekly, encouraging him as he takes college courses and serves in the prison ministry. Jones’ younger brother, Marty, and his other family members have also stayed by his side.

This significant body of evidence does not excuse Jones’ crime. It does mean, however, that under Miller and Montgomery, there is a strong likelihood that Jones is constitutionally ineligible for LWOP. His crime, while terrible, appears to have been the product of “unfortunate yet transient immaturity.”


Clearly, there is plenty of evidence that this man who was sentence to life in prison as a child is not incorrigible. Some time ago, I asked the question, Does America Hate Its Children? I'm afraid of the what the answer might be.

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Educators and parents have similar goals for children, but it often doesn't seem like it. There are few things that can improve your life as an early childhood educator than improved relations with the parents of the children you teach. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Discounts are available for groups.

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