The Playground or the Penitentiary: How Amending the Juvenile Justice and Reform Act can Curb Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences

The Playground or the Penitentiary: How Amending the Juvenile Justice and Reform Act can Curb Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences

David Olson

When Brett Jones was 15 years old, a jury convicted him of murder.[1] Subsequently, a Mississippi trial judge sentenced him to life without parole.[2] This was back in 2004, in 2021 at the age of 32, Jones petitioned the Supreme Court contending that it must make a separate factual finding that a murderer, under the age of 18 when they commit the murder is “permanently incorrigible” before imposing a life sentence without parole.[3] The Court ruled that, a finding of permanent incorrigibility is not required.[4]

This ruling essentially made it easier to sentence juveniles to life. Jones is one of 1,465 people serving life sentences without parole in the United States.[5] Those 1,465 children will never see the outside of the of those prison walls because of mistakes made during adolescence. Although the Court has recognized that adolescence is a time of “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,[6] there are 25 states that allow judges to impose life without parole sentences on juveniles.[7] As crazy as it sounds, only 9 of those have zero people serving a juvenile life without parole sentence.[8]

Following the Jones decisions, current adult prisoners (juveniles when sentenced) have exhausted their appeals and now have nowhere to turn. However, for those who have yet to commit crimes and face the perils of the American legal system there is a glimmer of hope.

The Juvenile Justice Reform Act (JJRA) was enacted in 2018. It reauthorized and improved the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. Additionally, the JJRA  set certain standards for the treatment of juvenile offenders throughout the United States.[9] In total, it established four core requirements that states must abide by if they wish to receive funding from the federal government.[10] However, if states did not follow the core requirements, entities within the state—like a non-profit organization—could apply individually to receive federal funding.[11] Consequently, states have no incentive to follow the core requirements. Although a step in the right direction, the JJRA—as it stands—is not enough to spur action from state legislatures to end juvenile life without parole sentences.

This Note argues that by amending the JJRA and adding a fifth core requirement—not allowing the imposition of a juvenile life without parole and adding harsher penalties for non-compliance, the federal government can effectively promulgate protections for juvenile offenders. First the Background section of this Note examines Jones v. Mississippi to highlight how this ruling diverged from case precedent. Then, Part I illustrates why there is a need for a legislative response from Congress. Further, Part II details why the federal government cannot force states to outlaw this sentencing practice. Finally, Part III discusses how amending the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018 allows Congress to effectively entice states to ban this sentencing practice without running afoul of the Constitution.

[1] Jones v. Mississippi 141 S. Ct. 1307, 1312, (2021).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 1312-13.

[4] Id. at 1323.

[5] Josh Rovner, Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview, The Sentencing Project (Mar. 24, 2021),

[6] Miller v. Alabama 567 U.S. 460, 477 (2012)

[7] Rovner, supra note 5.

[8] Id.

[9] Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018, PL 115-385, 132 Stat 5123 (Dec. 21, 2018).

[10] Id.                

[11] Id.

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