Parole Boards Treat Adolescents Who Grow Up in Prison Like Adults — and That’s Wrong

We know little about the discretionary release decisions of parole board decision-making, especially for juvenile offenders who have been sentenced as if they were adults to long terms of imprisonment, including life. The possibility of parole for juvenile lifers does not mean they will eventually be released. The formal and informal rules governing a juvenile offender’s eligibility for parole are either no different from adults or too vague.

First, we need to recognize that parole boards are at the tail end of the criminal justice system. Unlike criminal court they are an administrative body, often confidential in their deliberations. There is too often no requirement to be transparent. In this sense, parole boards would be considered a “black box” — one that can not only create a profound sense of injustice among offenders, making their rehabilitation less likely, but produce costly appeals.

Yet I believe that the administrative decision-making of parole boards can be improved upon in the case of juvenile offenders: first by recognizing the business of parole boards, which is not only to make judgments about the suitability of an offender’s release, but also to enable offenders to succeed by becoming law-abiding members of society. To enable appropriate assessments at the front and back end of the correctional process, it is important that parole boards recognize adolescence in all its complex developmental forms. I add the word complex, because a standard text on developmental adolescence is not appropriate for incarcerated adolescents subject to long-term adult imprisonment.

For instance, sensitivity to the adolescents who are juvenile offenders would modify state statutory requirements to consider the offender’s reoffending risk and offense seriousness. Offense seriousness and reoffending risk cannot easily be separated from one another, and often fall under the general rubric of offender dangerousness. Despite an offender’s excellent to good prison record (few infractions and having programmed well), offense seriousness (as indicative of offender dangerousness) is often presented as the defining reason for rejecting parole. But offense seriousness should be defined not only in terms of the harm committed, but also in terms of culpability. And in regards to culpability, the jurisprudence is clear: A youth’s culpability should be discounted based on the well-known facts of adolescence.

Still, before the parole board is not an adolescent but a middle-aged adult offender who looks no different from other middle-aged offenders who committed their offenses while adults. Parole boards need help in seeing beyond their cases of middle-aged offenders. They need to look beyond a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that has recognized the adolescence of juvenile lifers — at least in terms of those who were legislatively denied the possibility of parole.

Although the Supreme Court in its Graham (2010) and Miller (2012) decisions cited the developmental literature as reason for recognizing the jurisprudence of adolescence, it did not provide states with the standards for guiding parole board decisions, essentially leaving it to states to decide how they wish to implement the court’s decisions. Some states have created lengthy minimums, and others like California a specific part of their parole boards that explicitly acknowledges their juvenile lifers’ adolescence. Yet the acknowledgment where it exists appears vague and largely symbolic — an extension of merely stating for the record the juvenile’s age at time offense.

A step in the right direction would be to recognize the criminological reasons for juvenile violence, which include childhood trauma, neighborhood violence and familial abuse. The criminological reasons for gang membership as protection against neighborhood victimization would similarly explain why a juvenile or young inmate just entering prison would again join a gang , and again for protection. A capital offense and a life sentence are traumatic in themselves, and may lead to self-destructive behavior that produces a prison record that would not be looked upon kindly by parole boards many years later.

We should expect that over time the stated rules of engagement for parole boards have changed. This is the case in Massachusetts, where the state’s supreme judicial court not only recognized Miller, but also said that it is retroactive. The state’s supreme judicial court also indicated that parole-eligible juvenile lifers should have the benefit of legal representation — a right that is not provided to adults. Moreover, they recommended minimum periods that would provide adolescents with the possibility of returning to society as middle-aged adults.

Still, there is parole board resistance to dwelling on the adolescence of the offender at the time of the offense and to drawing on the developmental literature to explain early prison infractions. That resistance stems from alternative concerns that are raised by the victim, prosecutor and other members of the community, especially in serious cases of violence. The focus becomes on the offense; its sensational qualities, the victim(s) and then how the offense could be considered an indication that a “just” amount of time has not yet been served given the gravity of the crime.

My statements on parole are based on personally observing numerous parole board hearings and viewing nearly 300 videoed recordings, along with transcripts. I’ve not only observed hearings, but also examined in close detail records of decisions for juvenile lifers and compared them with young adult offenders. With Ed Mulvey (University of Pittsburgh) we found virtually no difference between adult lifers and juvenile lifers in their probability of parole, controlling for the severity of their offense and prison infractions. In fact, age was not a predictor of parole. Rather prison infractions, programming and offense seriousness were the only significant predictors after statistically controlling for a range of personal factors.

So where do we go from here? First, we need to understand parole board decision-making in cases of juveniles sentenced in criminal court to long terms of imprisonment—not just life. Many more thousands of juveniles beside those serving life are coming up for parole each year after serving long-term minimums. They are in the adult system from start to finish, and although a considerable amount of research on juvenile offenders has been conducted at the front end of the criminal justice system, there is little that is known about back-end decision-making, as exemplified by discretionary release decisions.

Secondly, states can do more to prepare their juvenile offenders for discretionary release by taking into account the facts of adolescence. They should not assume that just because the juvenile has been sentenced as an adult, they can be treated as an adult offender. A juvenile lifer’s problematic adolescence should not only be recognized first in a juvenile facility (usually the first stop for a juvenile lifer), but also in their subsequent adult prisons. Recognizing their problematic adolescence requires correctional officials to also recognize that the experiences of juvenile lifers are limited to prison life.

At the tail end of the correctional system is the parole board, and here the facts of a juvenile lifer’s adolescence must be explicitly recognized. The facts at this stage of discretionary release should not only acknowledge the adolescent’s limited socialization to life outside their prison. Those facts should also enable a set of treatments, reentry plans that specifically enables a juvenile lifer to succeed while on parole. In this way the upstream as well as downstream considerations that go into making parole decisions can do a better job in fulfilling the Supreme Court’s mandate for a meaningful review — one that takes into account the adolescence of juveniles, especially when imposing long-term maximum adult sentences.

To ignore the black box of parole board decision-making invites costly appeals, extending the cost of incarceration beyond the jurisprudential logic of a modern-day criminal justice system. Eventually states will do well by explicitly recognizing the adolescence of their juveniles and by developing the research tools, programs, procedures and administrative processes that can produce the meaningful review called for by the Supreme Court. My colleague Ed Mulvey and I have been working in this direction. However, we need more states than the few that have been willing to collaborate with us. If you would like to assist us in our research, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Simon I. Singer is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University. His current book project is titled “Adolescence Denied: Juvenile Lifers in America.” He has received awards from the American Sociological Association (Albert Reiss Book Award, 1999, for “Recriminalizing Delinquency: Violent Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Justice Reform”), and from the American Society of Criminology (Hindelang Book Award, 2014, for “America’s Safest City: Delinquency and Modernity in Suburbia”). He can be emailed at

Teen Photographers Take Spotlight at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center

Photographers Dani and Devin speak with the Alliance Theatre's Director of Educational Programs, Christopher Moses.

Urban Deconstruction,” an exhibit sponsored by Wells Fargo’s ArtsVibe Teen Program and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE), paints a dual portrait of Atlanta as both a modern marvel and a city in decay. The photographs on display at the Alliance Theater are a vision of the Southeastern metropolis as both towering buildings and dilapidated structures, a place where spiraling skyscrapers stand side-by-side with crumbling schoolhouses and abandoned, graffiti-covered interiors. The artwork, much like the city itself, is a demonstration of sharp contrasts and contradictions.

The artists behind the exhibit, however, aren’t your average photojournalists. Devin Black, 18, of Sandy Springs, Ga. and Dani Planer, 15, of  Atlanta, are two photographers who have been given a spotlight that would make most postgraduate photographers envious.

“It’s definitely really cool,” Black said about having his photographs on display at one of the Southeast’s most prestigious galleries. “Having it up on the wall is a lot better than just showing people your photos on a laptop screen.”

Planer also considers herself both honored and privileged to have her photographs on display. “I wasn’t expecting anything like this to come out of it,” she said.

Black and Planer’s project began when the two took a journalism class together at Atlanta’s The Galloway School, and became aware of their mutual photography interests. “We both like living in the city and exploring it,” Black said.

Planer said what would eventually become “Urban Deconstruction” began when, one day, they simply went outdoors and started taking photographs of their local landscape.

“When we walked outside the city,” Planer said, “we saw what it truly consisted of, which was deconstructed buildings and just an abandoned Atlanta, basically.”

She recalls entering an abandoned building off Dekalb Avenue and being surprised by the amount of overgrowth encircling it. “One of the buildings was just so overgrown with trees and vines that it was almost like it wasn’t even in the city anymore,” she said. The site of her favorite photograph in the exhibit, she stated, more closely resembled forest scenery than a metropolitan area.

Black believes the photographs give people a view of the city that some individuals living in Atlanta may never encounter. “Looking back,” he said, “they kind of give people a window on Atlanta.”

Black said his favorite photograph in the exhibition harked back to a peculiar childhood interest.

“I know one photo I kind of cherish,” he said. “It’s the photo of all the traffic safety lights, just scattered on a big pile on the floor.”

“As a kid,” he continued, “for some reason, I was obsessed with traffic cones and roadwork equipment.”

Black, who has applied to schools such as New York University, Northeastern University and the University of California, Los Angeles, said he would like explore some “creative ventures” for his next project. He said he wishes to continue photographing Atlanta’s urban landscapes, particularly finding ways to incorporate the city’s inhabitants into his artwork. “It adds a lot more to the story of a picture,” he said.

Planer said she wants patrons of the exhibit  to note the duality of their metropolitan stomping grounds.

“We hope people realize that the beautiful city that they live in also consists of these abandoned buildings that they see every day, but don’t even notice,” she said.

After high school, Planer said she would like to minor in photography while pursuing a major in psychology, stating that she would like to one day do another photographic project about families. “Photographs of different families, from different cultures,” she said. “With, I guess, 10 items that represent what their kind of culture is.”

Leonard Witt, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism, praised Black and Planer’s photography, stating that he felt “honored” to publish their work on JJIE prior to the Woodruff Arts Center exhibit.

“We feel honored that they chose us first and more importantly that they might lead the way for other youth produced special projects,”  Witt said. “After all, our mission is to provide insight into issues affecting youth and who better to provide that insight than youth themselves.”

“Urban Deconstruction” will be on display at the Joseph R. Bankoff Gallery at the Woodruff Arts Center until Jan 21.

Photo by John Flemming.

On Juvenile Detention, a Place Where the Right Meets the Left

John Last 1Today’s problems with an overcrowded and aging prison population are in part a direct result of efforts in the 1980s and ‘90s to “get tough” on crime. Several strategies were adopted across the United States that were intended to protect society and send a message to would-be criminals. Mandatory minimum sentences, increased penalties, removal of parole for certain crimes and life without parole were all part of the plan.

Juvenile criminals were also included in this crusade against crime. Many of the laws passed in relation to juvenile crime were based on the now discredited “super predator” theory put forth by John DiLulio of Princeton University and James Fox of Northeastern University. Their position was that these “super predators” were unlike juvenile criminals of the past. They were beyond rehabilitation and needed to be put away for the safety of society. A higher juvenile crime rate and press sensationalism of cases involving young people created the perfect environment for these ideas to flourish.

This theory was used by conservative politicians to push for laws that streamlined the process of transferring young offenders to adult court, sometimes by putting more power into the hands of prosecutors (by taking it from judges) and also by making whole classes of crimes automatically adult offenses.

Today, due mostly to the economic downturn of the last several years, states are facing the fiscal reality of these measures, both in adult and juvenile systems. When governments were flush with tax revenues the “lock ‘em up” position was easy to take. It spiraled further and further out of control as politicians competed to prove who was tougher on crime. Even if they doubted the positions of their party no politician who wanted to be reelected could afford to seem soft on this issue. Now, both conservatives and liberals are able to advocate for reform, both from an economic standpoint and from compassion.

A recent story in Bridge magazine highlights some of the changes of the past few years. Legislators and activists of all political stripes are supporting efforts to rewrite laws in a more reasonable fashion. Now, instead of “getting tough,” they are “getting smart.” A lot of these efforts are having an effect on juvenile laws as well.

According to the Bridge article the Michigan Department of Corrections spends $33,000 a year to house an inmate. The cost for keeping youths in their own homes, where they are monitored and participate in treatment, is about 3,600 a year. Figures like these help fiscally conservative politicians support change. In Ohio, where Republicans control the Legislature and the governor’s office, a law was passed that diverts first time non-violent juvenile offenders to community programs, creates alternatives to incarceration, and puts transfer authority back into the hands of juvenile court judges.

One conservative group that is leading the way in criminal justice reform is Right on Crime. This Texas-based organization supports reform based on conservative ideas of accountability from government agencies and a commitment to best practices to increase public safety and reduce costs. These go hand in hand with the concepts of community-based intervention and alternative sentencing programs that utilize families, schools, community members, faith based groups, and monitoring by juvenile probation and parole officers.

Their position on juvenile justice reform calls for flexible funding for localities to implement practices that work for them, evidence-based approaches, removing employment barriers after a juvenile is released, improving school disciple by fostering approaches such as peer courts and peer mediation, and reviewing the sentences of those convicted while minors to determine if they can be safely released.

The country has suffered greatly because of the economic problems of the last few years, but there is a silver lining. Finally society and its politicians are being forced to face the realities of the cost, in dollars and in human suffering, of the war on crime. Hard times have driven rhetoric from the debate, and we can get down to real reform based on facts instead of positions.

National Dropout Numbers: Three Million or 11 Million? It Depends on Whom You Ask

High school dropouts have been a national concern for decades and there have been lots of studies on why teens drop out and how to keep them in school.

Now, researchers are debating how many teens have actually dropped out and the numbers vary wildly, from 3 million to a whopping 11 million teens.

As reported last month, the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics released a report in December documenting that about 3 million 16 to 24-year-olds were not in high school and did not have a high school diploma. The Center did not include dropouts with a GED or dropouts who were institutionalized.

Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies used the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and estimates a much higher number: 6.2 million. This number includes young people with GED’s and those who didn’t graduate because they went to prison.

Whether to include GED holders has been an ideological debate among researchers for many years, Youth Today points out. also reported about the problem of dropout factories, a term coined by Johns Hopkins University which describes high schools where fewer than 60 percent of freshman actually graduate.

MDC Inc., a nonprofit in North Carolina, estimates an even higher number: 11 million dropouts nationwide. MDC’s report, called Disconnected Youth in the Research Triangle Region: An Ominous Problem Hidden in Plain Sight, focused on the South, combined Census data with community interviews and extrapolated their results.

So, how many kids have dropped out of school across the nation? There are so many different definitions and so many ways to count them that nobody knows for sure.