With the Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments in a case that could determine the constitutionality of life sentences without parole for juveniles, a new report looks at the lives of the more than 2,300 people currently serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18.
The new report, “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers,” analyzes the findings of a first-ever national survey of this unique prison population.
“The goal was to find out more about who these people are, their community and background,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which produced the report, said during a conference call Wednesday.
Ashley Nellis, the report’s author and a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, said the intention was to highlight the individual stories of those serving sentences of life without parole.
“A lot of times we hear solely about the offense for which they are serving,” she said. “They are more than just their crime.”
Many came from troubled homes. According to the survey, nearly 80 percent of those serving juvenile life without parole sentences (JLWOP) experienced high levels of exposure to violence in their homes. More than half witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods.
“More than a quarter of those surveyed had a parent in prison,” Nellis said.
JLWOP sentences are fraught with controversy. Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and former federal prosecutor, points to research showing juveniles’ brains do not fully develop until they are in their 20s.
“The science we see emerging is propelling us to think of youth brains as different from adult brains,” Osler said. “We’re not looking at the same brain that is going to emerge later.”
The history of juvenile courts bears that out, Nellis said.
“We used to account for the important differences between youth and adults,” she said. “As a society we felt strongly that kids were different from adults and that’s why we developed a separate juvenile justice system. Now the system has shifted and we are quick to throw these kids’ lives away.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that JLWOP sentences were unconstitutional for all crimes except murder. But according to Nellis, the United States is no longer handling juvenile crime the best way possible.
“Overall,” she said, “our findings show that our society is off track in the way that we punish youth for their misdeeds.”
The system began to change in the 80s and 90s following an upswing in juvenile violent crime, Nellis said. Politicians warned of teenage “superpredators” and pushed for tougher sentences. But the statistics never caught up with the perception and the so-called superpredators “never arrived,” Nellis wrote in the report.
“We now know through this experiment that ‘tough on crime’ does not work,” she said during the conference call. “It doesn't work on young lives that are not done maturing.”
Juvenile life sentences also show “a disturbing racial disparity,” Nellis said. According to the report, the racial dynamics of victims and offenders may play a large role in determining if an offender receives a life sentence.
“The proportion of African Americans serving JLWOP sentences for the killing of a white person (43.4 percent),” Nellis writes in the report, “is nearly twice the rate at which African American juveniles are arrested for taking a white person’s life.”
Osler is concerned the sentence is given out too easily.
“When we think about a sentence we have to worry that it’s being used arbitrarily and that there are things such as race that are bubbling up,” he said.
Currently 33 state allow JLWOP sentences.
Also on the conference call was Linda White of Houston, whose daughter was murdered by two juveniles. Life sentences without parole were not an option when the offenders were sentenced. Over time, she said, one of the offenders showed significant growth and she now has a “caring relationship” with him.
“At the time [of sentencing] I probably would have been happy with a life without parole option had it been available,” she said. “I have a completely different opinion today. Today I believe that it is not only unscientific but inherently cruel to sentence juveniles to life sentences without the hope of parole or release.”