A new report published by The Sentencing Project, a national organization working for a more effective criminal justice system, found “extreme” racial disparities in the number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before their 18th birthday.
The report, “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers,” presents findings from the first-ever national survey of people who committed crimes as juveniles—some as young as 13—and were sentenced to life in prison. More than 2,500 people are currently serving these sentences in the United States.
“Most juveniles serving life without parole sentences experienced trauma and neglect long before they engaged in their crimes,” stated Ashley Nellis, research analyst of The Sentencing Project and author of the report. “The findings from this survey do not excuse the crimes committed but they help explain them. With time, rehabilitation and maturity, some of these youth could one day safely re-enter society and contribute positively to their families and their communities.”
The report found the racial dynamics of victims and offenders may play a key role in determining which offenders are sentenced to juvenile life without parol (JLWOP.) The proportion of African Americans serving JLWOP sentences for the killing of a white person (43.4%) is nearly twice the rate at which African American juveniles are arrested for taking a white person’s life (23.2%); Conversely, white juvenile offenders with black victims are only about half as likely (3.6%) to receive a JLWOP sentence as their proportion of arrests for killing blacks (6.4%).
Some of the findings from “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers” on those serving life sentences without parole: - Juvenile lifers, especially girls, suffered high rates of abuse—nearly half (46.9%) of lifers experienced physical abuse, including 79.5 % among girls. - Juvenile lifers were exposed to high levels of violence in their homes (79%) and their communities (54.1%). - African American youth constitute 43.4% of life without parole sentences for a murder with a white victim, nearly twice the rate at which they are arrested for such crimes, 23.7%.
The report comes just weeks before the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the cases of two 14-year olds, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which will address questions about the constitutionality of sentencing teens to life without the possibility of parole.
“Forty years ago, the case of Furman v. Georgia generated a dramatic focus on the racial and class dynamics of the death penalty, and the Supreme Court looked to those injustices in changing the course of American law. This report provides a haunting echo to that era in revealing the similarly disproportionate use of juvenile life without parole sentences against defendants who are black and defendants who are poor,” Mark Osler, former federal prosecutor and law professor at the University of St. Thomas, said in a statement.
“These sad facts underscore the need to once again recognize the simple truth that children are different than adults, and that such brutal finality does not sit well on unfinished souls.”