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The Sentencing Project: Juvenile Lifers

Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope. Maturity can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation. A young person who knows that he or she has no chance to leave prison before life’s end has little incentive to become a responsible individual. — Graham v. Florida, 2010

The United States stands alone worldwide in imposing sentences of life without parole on juveniles. The U.S. achieved this unique position by slowly and steadily dismantling founding principles of the juvenile justice system. Today a record number of people are serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences in the U.S. for crimes committed before their 18th birthday.

Sentences of life without parole are often erroneously believed to translate to a handful of years in prison followed by inevitable release. The reality is that a life without parole sentence means that the individual will die in prison.

This report provides a new perspective on the population of individuals serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed in their youth. It represents the findings of a comprehensive investigation into this population that includes a first-ever national survey of juvenile lifers. Through this effort we obtained in-depth information from these individuals about their life experiences prior to their conviction, as well as descriptions of their lives while incarcerated. The findings are sobering, and should become an element of policy discussion regarding this extreme punishment.

Although it does not excuse their crimes, most people sent to prison for life as youth were failed by systems that are intended to protect children. Survey findings from 1,579 individuals around the country who are serving these sentences demonstrate high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, extreme racial disparities in the imposition of these punishments, sentences frequently imposed without judicial discretion, and counterproductive corrections policies that thwart efforts at rehabilitation. Highlights of this report include the following:

Socioeconomic Disadvantages, Education Failure, & Abuse

 Juvenile lifers experienced high levels of exposure to violence in their homes and communities:
 79% of individuals reported witnessing violence in their homes;
 More than half (54.1%) witnessed weekly violence in their

 Juvenile lifers, particularly girls, suffered high rates of abuse:
 Nearly half (46.9%) experienced physical abuse, including 79.5% of girls;
 77.3% of girls reported histories of sexual abuse; overall, 20.5% of juvenile lifers report being victims of sexual abuse.

 Juvenile lifers generally experienced significant social and economic disadvantage in their homes and communities:
 A third (31.5%) of juvenile lifers were raised in public housing;
 Eighteen percent (17.9%) of the respondents were not living with a close adult relative just before their incarceration; some reported
being homeless, living with friends, or being housed in a detention facility, treatment center, or group home.

Juvenile lifers faced significant educational challenges:
 Two in five respondents had been enrolled in special education
 Fewer than half (46.6%) of these individuals had been attending
school at the time of their offense;
 The vast majority (84.4%) of juvenile lifers had been suspended
or expelled from school at some point in their academic career.

Extreme Racial Disparities in JLWOP Sentences

 The racial dynamics of victims and offenders may play a key role in determining which offenders are sentenced to juvenile life without parole:
 The proportion of African Americans serving JLWOP sentences for the killing of a white person (43.4%) is nearly twice the rate at which African American juveniles are arrested for taking a black person’s life (23.2%);
 Conversely, white juvenile offenders with black victims are only about half as likely (3.6%) to receive a JLWOP sentence as their proportion of arrests for killing blacks (6.4%).

JLWOP Sentences Frequently Imposed Mandatorily

 The majority of JLWOP sentences are imposed in states in which judges are obligated to sentence individuals without consideration of any factors relating to a juvenile’s age or life circumstances:
 States such as Pennsylvania, which holds the nation’s largest population of juvenile lifers, require that youth of any age charged with homicide be tried in adult court and, upon conviction, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Corrections Policies Curtail Efforts at Rehabilitation

 Most (61.9%) juvenile lifers are not engaged in programming in prison, but this is generally not due to lack of interest, but because of state or prison policies:
 Among the juvenile lifers who were not participating in programming, 32.7% had been prohibited because they will never be released from prison; an additional 28.9% were in prisons without sufficient programming or had completed all available programming.
 Many juvenile lifers are engaged in constructive change during their incarceration when they are permitted the opportunity to do so;
 Two-thirds have attained a high school diploma or GED;
 Despite long distances from home and family, many juvenile
lifers attempt to maintain close ties with loved ones through
phone calls, letters, and visits;
 As years in prison pass, lifers are charged with declining numbers
of disciplinary actions.


The United States made a thoughtful and deliberate choice in 1899 to accommodate developmental differences between adolescents and adults with the establishment of juvenile courts. The reforms of that era created a separate system of justice for juveniles that recognized differences in culpability and maturity. Jane Addams, one of the original visionaries of the juvenile justice system, noted that the goal of the system should be “…a determination to understand the growing child and a sincere effort to find ways for securing his orderly development in normal society.”

Over the course of the following years, most states enacted provisions for transferring some youth out of juvenile courts and trying them in adult courts under limited circumstances. In the last two decades, the circumstances under which transfer occurs have expanded greatly. Part of the reason for the rise in sentencing youth to life in prison was the upswing in crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fueled in large part by the emerging crack cocaine drug markets and easy access to illegal guns. By 1993, the rate of homicides committed by juveniles had tripled from a decade earlier. Policymakers, the media, and the public listened to dire warnings from some that, “…on the horizon…are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super predators.” These so-called “superpredators” never arrived; moreover, the juvenile homicide rate was already declining when this statement was made, and homicide rates among juveniles have dropped steadily since 1993. The homicide arrest rate for 10-17-year-olds in 2008 of 3.8 per 100,000 represents a 74% decline from the peak arrest rate for juvenile-involved homicides in 1993, 14.4 per 100,000.

Nonetheless, driven by media reports of celebrated cases and public fears, catch phrases such as “adult crime, adult time” were popularized. Policymakers responded with a frenzy of tough laws that disregarded developmental differences between youth and adults, and instead focused exclusively on the crime. State legislatures chipped away at the founding principles of the juvenile justice system by passing laws that eased the way for young people to be transferred to and tried in adult courts, thus circumventing the very courts that the U.S. had created to protect young people. By the mid-1990s, every state had passed laws that either allowed or mandated that teenagers be tried as adults under certain circumstances. As a result, there was a steep rise in the number of teens who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole during the mid-1990s.

In their zeal to pass these laws, lawmakers failed to consider the full spectrum of adult sentences to which they were subjecting juveniles, the inappropriateness of these sentences given the developmental immaturity of juveniles, and the consequences of mandatory imposition of these sentences in many cases. [read complete report here]

Copyright 2012 The Sentencing Project. This report was written by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D. Research assistance was provided by Katherine Zafft and Cody Mason.


Source: Mlive Lansing

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