Who Are the Juvenile Lifers? New Report Paints a (Mostly) Grim Picture

The Sentencing Project has a new report on prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed while they were under the age of 18.  Entitled “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers,” the report presents the results from a national survey of more than 1,500 JLWOP inmates.  The report is very timely in light of the Supreme Court’s two pending JLWOP cases — perhaps the new information will help to convince the justices that JLWOP does indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment, even for homicide crimes.  In any event, here are some of the highlights.

First, and not surprisingly, the juvenile lifers had experienced high levels of social disadvantage and marginalization before receiving their life sentences.  For instance, nearly 80 percent reported witnessing violence in their homes, and more than half witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods.

Second, JLWOP sentencing patterns reflect the same racial dynamics that have long been documented in the death-penalty context: black-on-white killings seem most likely to provoke the harshest sentences:

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%).  (3)

Third, much of the JLWOP phenomenon seems to be driven by mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  “States such as Pennsylvania, which holds the nation’s largest population of juvenile lifers, require that youth of any age charged with homicide be tried in adult court and, upon conviction, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.”  (4)

Fourth, there seems to be a dearth of programming opportunities for the juvenile lifers, many of whom are categorically excluded for programming because they will not be released:

Most (61.9%) juvenile lifers are not engaged in programming in prison, but this is generally not due to lack of interest, but because of state or prison policies.  Among the juvenile lifers who were not participating in programming, 32.7% had been prohibited because they will never be released from prison; an additional 28.9% were in prisons without sufficient programming or had completed all available programming.  (4)

Fourth, the threat of the death penalty seems to have played a significant role in driving the growth of the JLWOP population: “In 65.9% of cases where a death sentence was an option, defendants took a plea that included JLWOP in order to avoid a death sentence, a punishment since found to be unconstitutional.”  (18)

Finally, the good news about juvenile lifers is that they are not, as is sometimes assumed, irredeemable sociopaths, but rather follow the general pattern of criminal offenders settling down as they age.  This is reflected in declining rates of prison discipline:

Of those who have been in prison for less than 10 years, only 18.5% have not had a report in at least the past three years. Among those who have been in prison 10 years or longer, 34.6% had not had an infraction in over three years. For those who have been imprisoned for more than 30 years, though, 71% had been incident-free for at least the last three years. Reviewing disciplinary actions over time, it becomes clear that misbehavior dissipates with years spent in prison.  (22)