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

Youthful Robber Released As Senior Now Helps Other Prisoners

Larry White is an old man of 81 now, but he remembers growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant before it was known as the hot gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. As a kid, while other children were playing basketball he used to stick up the A&P supermarkets in his area.

“I didn’t have any plans other than you make money and you hustle,” he said.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logoHe spent most of his childhood and young adult life like that, hustling. Then, on a Monday, on April 12, 1976, White and some acquaintances, three men and one woman, robbed the New Amsterdam cinema on 42nd Street, just off Times Square. It should have been an easy $80,000 job — that’s $340,000 in today’s dollars — but everything that could go wrong did.

During the botched robbery two security guards were killed by one of White’s accomplices.

The movie on the marquee that day, “The Getaway,” would presage White’s life. Steve McQueen plays a prisoner who, despite being refused parole, manages to regain his freedom thanks to the help of a partner. In return for his help the partner wants support for one last bank heist.

[Related: Revoked and Restored: Anthony Brown’s Life on Parole]

White was arrested for his role in the killings, tried and sentenced to 25 years to life. While still at Rikers Island, he tried to escape, cutting the bars of his cell, but the attempt failed and he went back to prison. He became a model prisoner, working as an editor at the prison newspaper and attending the rehabilitation programs.

It was not enough for three parole boards: Despite his excellent record as an inmate White was denied parole three times and spent additional seven years in prison.

Video: 'Do you think you're ready to go home?'

In 2007, White regained his freedom after getting approved for parole.

Looking at his friends left behind the bars, White made a promise: “I’ll be back.”

Out of prison, he started a new chapter of his life. He began working at Hope Lives for Lifers, a program for people still in prison. He said he wanted his experience behind bars, and his long effort to get out,  to help inspire those still on the inside.

That’s what he does as a consultant for the American Friends Service Committee. White uses his life’s hard lessons to help and educate other people facing long-term sentences who want to turn their lives around.

White drafted a manual during his years in prison as a tool for self-discipline, and now it is used as a guide by inmates across the New York state corrections system.

White kept his promise and went back to the prison where he was incarcerated; but this time it wasn’t as a convict — it was as a coordinator of discussion groups on how to cope within the prison system and prepare for parole board hearings.

(This story originally appeared in Forty Dollars and a Bus Ticket, a special report produced by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism's NYCity News Service.)

More related articles:

Confusion Over Certificate Program Denies Eligible Parolees the Right to Vote in NY

Virginia Makes It Easier for Former Felons to Vote

Case Now Strong for Ending Probation’s Place As Default Disposition in Juvenile Justice

Revoked and Restored: Anthony Brown’s Life on Parole

New York — Anthony Brown has spent 15 of his 31 years in prison or on parole. He was first incarcerated in 2001, when he was 16 years old, for selling drugs and has since been incarcerated four times for drug crimes and parole violations. Brown was most recently released from prison in February 2015, and says he is going to get off of parole for good so he can be involved in his soon-to-be born child’s life.

JJIE New York Metro Bureau logo“It’s the longest I’ve ever been out: a year,” Brown said. “I was just tired of doing whatever they told me I needed to do.”

The parole system is designed to help reintegrate people who have spent time in prison into day-to-day life. Brown’s time in the parole system has been much like the process of being "revoked and restored," which is a violation used by parole officers to add time to a parolee’s term when they fail to report for a period of time. Brown has been under state supervision non-stop since he was 16, partly because he has never served his full sentence without failing to follow the rules of parole. Those violations have led to added time on parole or being sent back to prison for months or years.

For many parolees like Brown, the difference between staying out of and returning to prison often depends on family support, employment and a helpful parole officer (PO) as much as individual willpower, according to former parole officer Ruben Hernandez.

[Related: Case Now Strong for Ending Probation’s Place As Default Disposition in Juvenile Justice]

Every other Wednesday, Brown wakes up in his Fordham, New York, apartment before 6 a.m. to catch the Bx15 bus for Port Morris in the South Bronx. It takes an hour to get to the parole office on Alexander Avenue, where he sometimes has to wait for up to eight hours to check in with his parole officer.

Officer Farrar oversees Brown’s parole now. He applies stricter discipline than Brown had with his previous parole officer. Brown is regularly tested for drugs and alcohol, and he is required to attend therapy.



Brown, who recently started a job at a telemarketing company in Queens, says being on parole can be difficult when it comes to his personal life.In addition to his check in at the parole office, he says he also has frequent home visits by a parole officer. Those visits will now include his work as well.

Parole rules across the country prove difficult to follow for parolee’s with drug offences like Brown. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that 40 percent of released drug offenders in 2010 were rearrested within 3 years of being released from prison.

Brown said his life of crime stems from the fact that he suffered physical and drug abuse as a child at the hands of his parents and foster parents. He said his father died when he was 3 years old, and he was left with his sister and mother, who was a drug addict. Shortly after being adopted when he was 12 years old, Brown decided to run away from his new, religiously devout mother.

He became homeless and began selling heroin as a way to support himself. He was first arrested and sentenced to three years in prison in 2001, when he was just 16 years old. That initial decision to deal drugs shaped his life for the next decade and a half.

After being released from prison a year and a half ago, Brown says he decided to change his life. His first step is starting a family with his girlfriend and new baby. Becoming a father made him realize he needed a new job that wouldn’t end in a return to prison. He is working off hours, but he says it’s a start. In the future, Brown wants to become a mentor to kids who might be at risk of walking down the same path he did. Brown says he thinks he can help by offering advice and telling people how things worked out for him. For now, he says, his family and a strict PO are putting him on a positive path to achieving those new goals.

This story originally appeared in Forty Dollars and a Bus Ticket, a special report produced by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism's NYCity News Service.

More related articles:

Troubled No More, Youths Bring Stories of Their Resilience to Probation Professionals

Probation Camp Alternatives Work Better for Teens

Letting Go of What Doesn’t Work for Juvenile Probation, Embracing What Does

California Governor May Toss Certain Juvenile Life Sentences

On the desk of California Gov. Jerry Brown is a key that could unlock the prison gates for inmates sentenced as youth to life without parole.

The key comes in the form of legislation, Senate Bill 9, a long-fought proposal to allow such inmates to petition for resentencing after serving 15 years. Inmates are not eligible if the crime involved torture or the killing of officials such as law enforcement officers. To get a chance at parole or a reduced sentence, the offender must convince a judge of their remorse and their progress toward rehabilitation.

Advocates say the proposal is a win for children, but opponents say it’s a loss for crime victims.

“The Fair Sentencing for Youth Act [SB 9] ensures youth are held accountable for their crimes in a way that reflects the distinct characteristics of youth, with a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society,” said Jody Kent-Lavy, Director and National Coordinator of the national Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, in a written statement.

Her organization argues that children have a greater capacity than adults for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, and that the California proposal provides space for both.  Dozens of organizations, most involved with childrens’ rights, welfare, or legal reform, submitted their names in favor of the bill.

In a statement, state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), the bill’s author and a child psychologist, said that in youth, impulse control, planning and critical thinking are not yet fully developed. Yee explained that his bill “reflects that science and provides the opportunity for compassion and rehabilitation that we should exercise with minors.”

But state Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) wants the governor, a Democrat, to veto the bill.  The southern California senator thinks the bill undermines two public referenda from the 1990s, when state voters approved life without parole sentences for some 16- and 17-year-olds convicted of murder.

If SB 9 is signed into law, Anderson wrote in a public letter, it “will encourage criminal drug gangs to increase their recruitment of 16- and 17-year-olds to commit heinous murders, with the lure that they could get paroled if ever caught.”

Anderson ended by saying he supports “the victims of violent crime — not their murderers.”

More than a dozen organizations came out against SB 9, most of them either from law enforcement or crime victim groups.

The California District Attorneys Association wrote to the legislature saying existing law already properly grants judges discretion to impose lesser sentences, therefore they “oppose any effort, whether overt or veiled, to substantially weaken the statutory response to special circumstances murder committed by specified juveniles.” They also think the eligibility standards for resentencing are too low.

Under the bill, if a resentencing is turned down, the inmate could ask again after 20 years and again during their 24th year in custody.

The bill went through several amendments since its introduction in December 2010.  The state Assembly and Senate sent the bill to Brown in August on nearly party-line votes: Democrats for, Republicans against.

The state Senate projected the annual cost of resentencing hearings would rise from $52,000 in fiscal year 2012 to as much as $90,000 two years later.  It found the savings for the cost of incarceration are “unknown,” but potentially up to $25,000 per inmate per year.

The bill would apply to about 300 youth offenders, according to Yee.  Brown can sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

Grant Seeks Systematic Change In Juvenile Justice System

The Public Welfare Foundation offers a grant to support efforts to ensure fundamental rights and opportunities for people in need. The organization focuses on two programs, one of which is in criminal and juvenile justice. The goal of this grant is to help change the justice system. The foundation seeks groups who have strategies to lower rates of incarceration and prison populations by changing specific laws, policies or regulations. This due date for this grant is July 22, 2011.


June 3, 2011

"Defending Childhood" Public Service Announcement to Star Attorney General

Memo to Wile E. Coyote: Violence Won't Make Kids Like You

One Man's Journey Through Crime, Drugs, Schizophrenia and Rehabilitation

Hornberger Advice: Juvenile Offenders Need Alternatives to Prisons

Juvenile Justice Expert David Schmidt Discusses Juvenile Life Without Parole