Life Sentences, Long Sentences Imposed on Youth Need 2nd Look

Decades of research from the fields of criminology and adolescent brain science find that the decisions made in youth — even very unwise decisions — do not crystallize criminality. Instead, as young people age and mature they develop the capacity to make different choices.

Fortunately, more informed policies have begun to replace the punishments that proliferated during the 1990s when fear of “superpredators” and calls for “adult time, adult crime” dominated youth crime policy. The incarceration rate for youth in juvenile and adult systems soared then. Today, youth incarceration in juvenile facilities is now half its level of 20 years ago. Driven by the work of advocates, legislators, researchers and judges, many now readily acknowledge that the juvenile justice system should be used sparingly and only for those who truly need confinement.

Based mostly on the adolescent brain science discoveries that concluded that executive functioning is not fully developed until adulthood, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty for juveniles violated the 8th Amendment. The Supreme Court has taken up the issue of severe sanctions for juveniles three more times since then, and as a result there are restrictions in the use of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juveniles.

Changing public sentiment regarding the wisdom of sending young people to adult prisons has led policymakers in many states to revise misguided policies in this area. Many juveniles who would otherwise be languishing in adult prisons are now either in juvenile confinement facilities that are better designed for their needs or have been diverted from confinement altogether. In 2015, the number of juveniles held in adult prisons declined to less than 1,000, an 82 percent drop from the peak year in 1997.

These reforms have not resulted in any adverse public safety outcomes. Crime continues to be at historic lows.

Despite these advances, more than 9,000 people who were convicted as youth still do not stand to benefit from reforms either in the juvenile system or of the restrictions on punishments in the adult system. The Sentencing Project recently released a national study on the prevalence of life sentences nationwide, disaggregated by crime of conviction, race and ethnicity, gender and juvenile status. We obtained data from the states and federal Bureau of Prisons on the number of people serving three categories of life sentences: life with the possibility of parole (LWP), LWOP and virtual or de facto life sentences that amount to terms of 50 years or more. We learned that 1 in 7 prisoners is serving one of these sentences and that nearly 6 percent of the lifer population was under 18 at the time of the crime.

Aside from the roughly 2,300 individuals serving JLWOP there are approximately 7,000 juveniles who are serving parole-eligible life sentences around the country. For them, a statutory mandate or judicial decision has determined that spending the rest of their life in prison is reasonable if parole is not granted sooner. In New York, Georgia and Texas, more than 600 people sentenced for crimes in their youth have parolable life sentences. In California, which leads the nation in the category of life sentences, a notable 2,700 individuals are serving parole-eligible life for a crime committed under age 18.

In addition to the 7,000 juveniles serving life with parole, nationwide 2,000 individuals are serving de facto life sentences of 50 years or more for crimes committed when they were less than 18 years old. Louisiana reports 600 virtual lifers who were juveniles when their crime occurred and Texas reports nearly 450 such individuals.

The crimes committed by these juveniles were typically serious: 82 percent of lifers with the possibility of parole have been convicted of a homicide, and for half of these the crime was a first-degree murder. Among those serving de facto life for crimes committed as juveniles, 56 percent were convicted of a homicide and 94 percent were convicted of violent crime, including 22 percent for aggravated assault.

As with all life sentences, racial disproportionality is evident. African-American youth comprise more than half (53 percent) of the parolable and virtual life sentences, slightly less than their composition among the JLWOP population (63 percent). Overall, youth of color make up 81 percent of those serving life and virtual life sentences.

Some states stand out in the proportion of life and virtual life sentences being served by those who were young at the time of the crime. In Wisconsin, for instance, more than 11 percent of the life-sentenced population was a juvenile at the time of the crime. And while a first opportunity for parole comes after “only” 20 years in Wisconsin, we know from mounting research in parole politics and practices that rates of granting parole have fallen, particularly for those convicted of serious crimes and serving lengthy sentences. In Georgia, which in 2016 reported 600 people serving parole-eligible life sentences for crimes committed in their youth, the first opportunity for parole does not occur for 25 to 30 years. In Tennessee, the first parole hearing occurs only after a minimum of 51 years.

The requirement set forth in Graham v. Florida of a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” has shined a bright light on parole systems’ capacity and willingness to afford a second look, and when this should occur. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Virginia et al. v. Dennis LeBlanc (582 US ___[2017]) that Virginia’s “geriatric release” mechanism provided a sufficiently meaningful opportunity for release. Geriatric release allows review for those 60 years old and older; this means that LeBLanc and other people in his position will wait more than 40 years before being considered for release.

This and other lengthy terms of imprisonment stand to violate the spirit if not the letter of the recent court rulings. They also conflict with recent recommendations of the American Law Institute, a respected body of legal scholars and law practitioners that proposes a review after 10 years for any juveniles sentenced to terms longer than this.

Revised state laws for sentencing juveniles are being developed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court rulings. It is important to include in these considerations all youth with life and lengthy terms; their potential for reform and maturation is just as likely as for those sentenced to life without parole.

Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the author of numerous research reports on life sentences, most recently “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences.”

Chicago’s Homicides Down in July But Worries Still Linger

By Natalie Krebs and Lorraine Ma

CHICAGO -- It was rare news in a summer filled with frightening crime statistics, equally alarming headlines and a mayor and police superintendent on the defensive: For the month of July, killings in this city were down 11 percent from the same period last year, with the number of homicides for the month at 49.

But such news matters little to people like Shirley Askew, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, whiling away days playing in the streets and city parks. And it means little when the overall homicide rate for the year is still up nearly 27 percent. Many children are scared; they’re kept indoors, and, in a very real sense, locked out of their childhoods.

Now 59, with four sons and four grandsons, Askew indeed worries about the increasing neighborhood violence that threatens local children’s safety. Just Thursday afternoon, not far from where Askew spoke with reporters, two 16-year-old boys were gunned down and another wounded.

“God knows I wouldn’t want to go back and be a child again,“ she said, “Boy, I just feel so bad for them, because they have nowhere to play, nowhere they can go to without somebody fighting and shooting everything up.”

Askew, who was selling snow cones outside a convenience store on North Avenue, said this summer seems more violent than the last because she hears about shootings just about every day. This environment is rough for children, she added, growing quiet as a young girl and her father approached the stand.

“These babies don’t have a chance,” Askew said, watching the pair walk away with their fruit punch flavored cone.

City officials put a good face on the crime numbers that were reported in the local media Thursday. But they acknowledged the city has a long way to go to halt the killings. Through the end of July there were 308 homicides in Chicago - still far above last year's total of 243 for the same period.

Strategies borrowed from the playbook that saw New York’s crime rate plummet from a high in the mid-1990s, known as the broken-windows program, have been implemented in some cases here. The police target even minor crimes to chip away at the more headline-grabbing murders that have so marred this summer.

Some residents say much of the violence is due to gang disputes in various pockets of the city. Michael Lee, 54, also from the West Side, said he hears shots once or twice a week.

“We’re wary about walking down the streets, sending our kids to the store and letting them out of the house,” he said.

Lake View High School student Destinee Davis, 17, said the July Fourth holiday seemed to mark the height of violence so far this summer, when she could not distinguish between fireworks and gunshots.

While Davis said it is difficult, with violence so rampant, to tell if this summer is any worse than previous years, she said she has witnessed a number of muggings. She said her cousin, who lives with Davis, has been jumped three times this year.

“It makes me scared to go out,” she said as she stood waiting for her bus.


Natalie Krebs and Lorraine Ma are reporters for The Chicago Bureau.

Photo from Law Enforcement Today.



Law Enforcement Learns the ‘Social Media Beat’

Photo illustration: Clay Duda/JJIE.orgIt’s no secret: Social media has redefined the way people communicate, especially among the under-30 crowd. Now, law enforcement agencies are catching on and increasingly incorporating social media into their arsenal of crime-fighting tools.

Over the past few months a series of high profile social-media-turned-criminal acts have made headlines -- from flash mobs turned violent on the streets of Philadelphia to Atlanta house parties taped off as homicide scenes -- and law enforcement has taken note.

Some agencies have been quick to recognize the potential of embracing social media. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, has run a “Social Media Monitoring Center” since early 2009; Correction officials in California have worked directly with Facebook to thwart inmates from accessing social profiles while behind bars; And police in New York formed a special unit to monitor social channels for gang-related and other potential criminal acts.

In an age of status updates and geotagged tweets, sometimes it’s as simple as waiting for a criminal to make a sloppy post. But not every area of law enforcement has been swift to adopt the relatively new technologies. For them, there’s still hope.

A number of resources, conferences and workshops have been popping up around the net and the country.

Near the end of the month, experts and officials from across the United States will descend on Dallas for the fourth Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement (SMILE) conference. The three-day mash up of lectures, workshops and Q&As will focus around the central theme of public order.

According to conference organizer Lauri Stevens, there’s just too much to cover in three days. Each SMILE conference, now the fourth since early 2010, focuses on a subject within the industry -- from cyber bullying to investigations and public order.

“If law enforcement, as a whole, can understand what can be accomplished with these tools they can reduce crime, improve their relationship and put the community back in community policing,” Stevens said.

The Dallas Police Department, co-producer of the SMILE conference, has used social media in a number of communicative and investigative capacities, according to Lieutenant Scott Walton, Unit Commander for Media Relations.

Recognizing the potential of the medium, Walton said the department is always open to improvement and essentially has to be, in order to use it effectively.

“It’s such a growing area of communication, to keep up you have to be looking for the next way to use the technology,” Walton said. “It’s really becoming more important every day.”

Since founding the IACP Center for Social Media barely a year ago, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has seen an increase in interest from members of the law enforcement community.

Program manager Nancy Kolb said it’s important for law enforcement to be aware of social media’s impact.

“Social media isn’t going away,” said Kolb. “It’s not a fad. It’s something law enforcement needs to understand and be able to use for investigation and in terms of communicating with their community.”

The Center plans to offer a number of social media workshops at this year’s IACP conference in Chicago, Oct. 22-26.

Photo illustration: Clay Duda/