Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside
prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope. Maturity can lead to
that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and
rehabilitation. A young person who knows that he or she has no chance to leave
prison before life’s end has little incentive to become a responsible individual.
Graham v. Florida, 2010
Through diligent review of case studies, case laws and legal statutes and topical books, The United States stands alone worldwide in imposing sentences of life without parole on juveniles. The U.S. achieved this unique position by slowly and steadily dismantling founding principles of the juvenile justice system. Today a record number of people are serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences in the U.S. for crimes committed before their 18th birthday. Sentences of life without parole are often erroneously believed to translate to a handful of years in prison followed by inevitable release. The reality is that a life without parole sentence means that the individual will die in prison.
Although it does not excuse their crimes, most people sent to prison for life as youth were failed by systems that are intended to protect children. Survey findings from 1,579 individuals around the country who are serving these sentences demonstrate high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, extreme racial disparities in the imposition of these punishments, sentences frequently imposed without judicial discretion, and counterproductive corrections policies that thwart efforts at rehabilitation.
The United States made a thoughtful and deliberate choice in 1899 to accommodate developmental differences between adolescents and adults with the establishment of juvenile courts. The reforms of that era created a separate system of justice for juveniles that recognized differences in culpability and maturity. Jane Addams, one of the original visionaries of the juvenile justice system, noted that the goal of the system should be “…a determination to understand the growing child and a sincere effort to find ways for securing his orderly development in normal society.
Over the course of the following years, most states enacted provisions for transferring some youth out of juvenile courts and trying them in adult courts under limited circumstances. In the last two decades, the circumstances under which transfer occurs have expanded greatly. Part of the reason for the rise in sentencing youth to life in prison was the upswing in crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fueled in large part by the emerging crack cocaine drug markets and easy access to illegal guns.
By 1993, the rate of homicides committed by juveniles had tripled from a decade earlier. Policymakers, the media, and the public listened to dire warnings from some that, “…on the horizon…are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile superpredators.”5 These so-called “superpredators” never arrived; moreover, the juvenile homicide rate was already declining when this statement was made, and homicide rates among juveniles have dropped steadily since 1993. The homicide arrest rate for 10-17-year-olds in 2013 of 3.5 per 100,000 represents a 76% decline from the peak arrest rate for juvenile-involved homicides in 1993, 14.4 per 100,000.
Nonetheless, driven by media reports of celebrated cases and public fears, catch phrases such as “adult crime, adult time” were popularized. Policymakers responded with a frenzy of tough laws that disregarded developmental differences between youth and adults, and instead focused exclusively on the crime. State legislatures chipped away at the founding principles of the juvenile justice system by passing laws that eased the way for young people to be transferred to and tried in adult courts, thus circumventing the very courts that the U.S. had created to protect young people.
By the mid-1990s, every state had passed laws that either allowed or mandated that teenagers be tried as adults under certain circumstances. As a result, there was a steep rise in the number of teens who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole during the mid-1990s.
In their zeal to pass these laws, lawmakers failed to consider the full spectrum of adult sentences to which they were subjecting juveniles, the inappropriateness of these sentences given the developmental immaturity of juveniles, and the consequences of mandatory imposition of these sentences in many cases.