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Life Sentence for Juvenile Affirmed, Youth Considered

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460, there has been an increased awareness that sentencing of a young person cannot proceed as if the person is an adult with an assumption that the commission of the crime reflects upon that person’s well-developed character (or lack thereof), including integrity, impulse control, judgment and respect for others.

Indeed, after Miller, judges have been required to “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”  Miller, supra, at 479-480; see also Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) 577 U.S. 190, 206, 212 (Miller’s rule of sentencing considerations applied retroactively and suggesting that LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) is “an unconstitutional penalty for . . . juvenile offenders whose crimes reflect the transient immaturity of youth,” i.e., for “all but . . . those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”).

This comment in Montgomery about finding “permanent incorrigibility” opened varying interpretations of whether such a finding was required prior to an LWOP sentence.  Some courts interpreted it as a required; others did not.  Finally, in 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court in Jones v. Mississippi (2021) 141 S. Ct. 1307, was ruled upon for the express purpose of clarifying “how to interpret Miller and Montgomery.”

In Jones, the Supreme Court held that “permanent incorrigibility is not an eligibility criterion” for the imposition of juvenile LWOP sentences, id. at 1335, and rejected the argument that “a sentencer must at least provide an on-the-record sentencing explanation with ‘implicit finding’ of permanent incorrigibility.”  Id. at 1319.  Instead, all that was required in sentencing prior to such an LWOP sentence was that the sentencing judge engage in a meaningful Miller analysis of the mitigating factors of an offender’s youth, including, but not limited to, the offender’s family history, drug and/or alcohol abuse, education and peer pressures that would affect the offender’s maturity, impulsivity and ability to appreciate the gravity of his conduct to others.

It is against this legal background that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit considered the life without the possibility of parole sentence of Riley Briones, Jr., for crimes he committed at age 17, eleven months and eight days old.

Mr. Briones was a Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian and a founder and leader of the “Eastside Crips Rolling 30’s,” a violent and cold-blooded gang which, as described by the resentencing judge in this case, “terrorized the Salt River Reservation community and surrounding area for several years.”  In this role, Briones participated in and planned a series of violent crimes on and around the Salt River Reservation, including murder, arson (fire-bombing with Molotov cocktails) and tampering with witnesses.

Briones and four other members of the Eastside Crips Rolling 30’s were indicted on a total of seventeen federal charges.  After a trial, Briones was convicted of all such offenses.

At his original sentencing in 1997, Briones continued to deny responsibility for the crimes despite overwhelming evidence.  The judge imposed the then-mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole (LWOP), plus 20 years on the remaining non-homicide counts.

It merits mention that because the federal system does not permit parole or early release from life sentences (see 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(1)), Briones’ sentence was effectively life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

Fifteen years after his original sentence in 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, supra, was issued and Briones filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate his original LWOP sentence and to have it reconsidered at a resentencing hearing where the judge would have discretion under Miller to impose a lesser sentence in light of Briones’ “youth and attendant characteristics.”  Miller, 567 U.S. at 483.

The district court granted the motion and resentencing took place, at which time the district court considered Briones’ family situation, his education, his peer pressure in the gang and other personal factors of his youth.  However, the judge affirmed the federal sentence of life, which was effectively LWOP.

Briones then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that under Montgomery, his life sentence had to be vacated because there was never an explicit finding of “permanent incorrigibility.”

The U.S. Supreme Court then ruled on Jones v. Mississippi and remanded Briones’ case back to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, which, applying Jones, found no error in the district court resentencing because under Jones, there was no requirement that an explicit “permanent incorrigibility” finding be made prior to such a sentence.

We present this summary because the “permanent incorrigibility” standard was unclear and this Ninth Circuit case certainly settles the matter regarding what is required.

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