Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP)
The United States is the only country in the world that permits youth to be sentenced to life without parole. Sentencing children to die in prison is condemned by international law. For children or adults, a sentence of life without parole is cruel, inhumane, and denies the individual’s humanity. For children, the sentence also defies law and research confirming that youth are different than adults and must be treated differently by our legal system. Yet, thousands of young people have been sentenced to die in prison across the country. Additionally, Black and Brown youth are disproportionately sentenced to life without parole and other extreme sentences – addressing these sentencing schemes are pivotal in the fight for racial justice.
Between 2005-2016, the U.S. Supreme Court issued several decisions banning extreme adult sentences for youth. In Roper v. Simmons, the Court banned the death penalty for children under age 18; in Graham v. Florida, the Court banned life without parole sentences for youth convicted of non-homicide crimes; and in Miller v. Alabama, the Court banned mandatory sentences of life without parole for youth convicted of homicide crimes. While youth may still be sentenced to discretionary life without parole in homicide cases, these sentences should be rare and uncommon and reserved only for individuals who the court has deemed are incapable of rehabilitation. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court decided its most recent decision on juvenile sentencing. In Jones v. Mississippi the Court confirmed that age matters in sentencing, but gave states latitude to create their own procedures for sentencing youth. While judges must consider the hallmark characteristics of youth, they need not make any specific findings regarding youth characteristics and a young person’s eligibility for a life sentence.
In each of these cases, the Court relied upon scientific research to conclude that even youth who commit the most serious or violent crimes have the capacity to change. Because of their developmental immaturity, impetuousness, and susceptibility to negative peer influences, children are less blameworthy for their criminal conduct than adults.
Research shows that most youth will naturally grow out of criminal behavior by their mid-twenties. Life without parole and other extremely lengthy sentences keep youth in prison well past the point at which they have been rehabilitated and well beyond any reasonable risk of re-offending.
Moreover, many juvenile lifers— both inside and out of prison — are leading exemplary lives. They are leaders within the prison walls, and many of those who have returned home have dedicated themselves to working with youth and keeping their communities safe.
Extreme Sentences Don’t Work
We need solutions that work. It is far more expensive to lock individuals up for life than to invest in our schools and our communities. These sentencing practices don’t make us safer, and they deny youth who have demonstrated growth and maturity the chance to rejoin their families and communities, and contribute to those communities in meaningful and productive ways.
Juvenile Law Center is a leading advocate nationwide in the fight to end juvenile life without parole and other harsh sentences for youth. We have participated in all of the sentencing challenges before the U.S. Supreme Court. We continue to provide litigation support, technical assistance, and professional training to support the ongoing implementation of these decisions at the state level.
Across the country, 2800 individuals were serving juvenile life without parole sentences when Miller v. Alabama was decided. https://cfsy.org/sentencing-children-to-life-without-parole-national-numbers/. Pennsylvania was home to the highest number of youth serving juvenile life without parole sentences, with 520 individuals. https://www.cor.pa.gov/About%20Us/Initiatives/Pages/Juvenile-Lifers-Inf…
To date, nationally over 900 individuals formerly condemned to die in prison have been released. https://cfsy.org/sentencing-children-to-life-without-parole-national-nu…
25 states and the District of Columbia have banned juvenile life without parole sentences. An additional 7 states have no youth serving a life without parole sentence. https://cfsy.org/media-resources/states-that-ban-juvenile-life-without-parole/
Banner Photo Credit: © Richard Ross, juvenile-in-justice.com
Juvenile Life Without Parole in Pennsylvania
Approximately 2,600 inmates nationwide serve life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles; approximately 414 of them are serving in Pennsylvania—the most of any U.S. jurisdiction.