Three weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles convicted of homicide to life without parole, the first-ever study of youngsters serving these punishments has been released.
The Lives of Juvenile Lifers, a survey of more than 1,500 prisoners who were sentenced prison terms of life without parole (known as JLWOP) when they were between the ages 13 to 17 was compiled by The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for sentencing reform that opposes JLWOP. “Although it does not excuse their crimes,” the report sums up, “most people sent to prison for life as youth were failed by systems that are intended to protect children.”
Thirty-three states currently sentence juveniles to life without parole, and the Supreme Court has been chipping around the edges of harsh punishments for juvenile offenders for years. In 2005, it eliminated the death penalty for anyone who committed a crime under the age of 18, and two years ago, it banned JLWOP as an option for non-homicide cases. (Miller-McCune examined the question of “Should Minors Ever Face Life Without Parole?” before that decision was handed down.)
On March 20, the court will hear oral arguments involving two JLWOP prisoners, both 14 at the time of their crimes. One was convicted under mandatory guidelines, the other was present but did not pull the trigger in a murder.
Among its findings, the Sentencing Project study found that:
• Juveniles sentenced to life without parole – there are more than 2,500 in the U.S. — are 97 percent male and 60 percent black.
• The proportion of blacks serving life for killing a white person is much higher than the proportion of whites sentenced to life for killing blacks.
• Of those incarcerated, the vast majority comes from violent homes, and nearly half had experienced physical abuse.
• Forty percent of all JLWOP prisoners had been in special education classes, and less than half had been in school when they committed their crimes.
• More than a quarter had a parent in prison, and 60 percent had close relatives in prison.
“As a society we are off track in the ways we punish youth for their misdeeds,” says Ashley Nellis, author of the survey. “Juveniles are not adults, which is why we developed a separate juvenile justice system. But over time these attitudes have shifted, and we are quick to throw these lives away. Treating youth as if they are adults does not work.”
What is especially troubling about the study, adds Mark Osler, a law professor and former federal prosecutor who participated in a recent panel discussion about the study, is “the differential value of victims by race. That has deep, troubling roots in American law. There are things like race that are bubbling up that are deciding factors (in JLWOP sentences).”
Proponents of JLWOP, such as the National District Attorneys Association, argue that completely removing the possibility of JLWOP is going too far, that the rarity of its imposition for young offenders demonstrates how serious courts take it, and that when the death penalty for youth was taken off the table the existence of a JLWOP alternative was cited.
Opponents, however, note that recent research indicates the brains of juveniles are still forming. “The science that is emerging compels us to continue looking at juveniles as different,” Osler said. “Their brains are different than adult brains are.”
In an amicus brief supporting JLWOP written for the National District Attorneys Association, the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis notes that the research suggests brains don’t fully develop until the mid-20s, implying that a success at the juvenile level might encourage a broader assault on all life without parole sentences. “Penological lines based on such emerging science are the sorts of lines that, in a democratic society, should be drawn by elected state legislators, not unelected federal judges,” the brief reads.
More than 300 prisoners responding to The Sentencing Project’s survey have already served more than 20 years in prison, and some have been in jail for nearly half a century. The majority of these prisoners are not involved in any kind of rehabilitative programs – either because of budgetary constraints or because these programs are not open to people will never be released from prison.
Says Linda White, another panel participant whose daughter was murdered by two 15-year-olds, yet who has developed a relationship with one of the murderers: “It is inherently cruel to sentence young people to JLWOP without any possibility of rehabilitation.”