As Supreme Court Listens, Here’s a Look at What It Means to Lock Kids Away for Life

The Supreme Court is weighing whether it's fair to lock juvenile offenders convicted of murder away for life without a chance to reform. Here's why race matters.

By Hatty Lee Mar 21, 2012

On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court revisited the question of whether juveniles convicted of murder should be given mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. This is the Court’s latest review of how juvenile offenders should be treated differently than adults; the justices have previously ruled against imposing death sentences on juveniles and imposing life sentences on youth who aren’t convicted of murder.

The two cases they are debating are from two 14-year-olds who were sentenced to life without parole for two separate killings. One case is Miller v. Alabama which involved Evan Miller, who, with another juvenile, was convicted of killing his neighbor and setting fire to his home. The other case is Jackson v. Hobbs, which involved Kuntrell Jackson of Blytheville, Arkansas, who, with two other juveniles, attempted to rob a store and one of the youth killed the clerk with a sawed-off shotgun. 

Thirty-three states currently sentence juveniles to life without parole. And there are over 2,500 juvenile offenders living out these sentences, with the largest number — 444 —  in Pennsylvania. Most of them are young black men.

Those who argue against such lengthy sentences say that many of these juvenile offenders were caught in the cradle to prison pipeline — experiencing violence and abuse at a young age, and grappling with an unstable household and inability to attend school. Juveniles who are placed in adult prisons are at much higher risk of physical and sexual assaults by older inmates and prison guards, a fact that some say make their lengthy sentences cruel and unusual.

According to The Lives of Juvenile Lifers, the upswing of homicides committed by juveniles soared in 1993. Every state responded with passing laws that either allowed or mandated that teenagers be tried as adults under certain circumstances. So as the juvenile murder arrests rates increased in the mid-1990s, so did the number of teens who were sentenced to life without parole.