Looking at the Lives of Teens Serving Life Without Parole

In the United States, there are more than 2,500 people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as children (known as JLWOP). A new report from The Sentencing Project analyzes the findings of a first-ever national survey of JWOPers inmates, some of whom were sentenced at 13 years old. 
“Most juveniles serving life without parole sentences experienced trauma and neglect long before they engaged in their crimes,” explained report author Ashley Nellis. “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.”
 Among the findings:

  • Teens sentenced to life without parole are 97% male and 60% African American.
  • 79% of JLWOPers were exposed to high levels of violence in their homes.
  • Nearly half experienced physical abuse.
  • More than a quarter had a parent in prison and 60% had close relatives in prison.

Over half of the states currently sentence kids to life without parole. From Miller-McCune:

Thirty-three states currently sentence juveniles to life without parole, and the Supreme Court has been chipping around the edges of harsh punishments for juvenile offenders for years. In 2005, it eliminated the death penalty for anyone who committed a crime under the age of 18, and two years ago, it banned JLWOP as an option for non-homicide cases. (Miller-McCune examined the question of “Should Minors Ever Face Life Without Parole?” before that decision was handed down.)

During a media conference call with the report's author, a woman whose daughter was murdered by two teens explained why she is against JLWOP sentences.
From JJIE:
Also on the conference call was Linda White of Houston, whose daughter was murdered by two juveniles. Life sentences without parole were not an option when the offenders were sentenced. Over time, she said, one of the offenders showed significant growth and she now has a “caring relationship” with him.
“At the time [of sentencing] I probably would have been happy with a life without parole option had it been available,” she said. “I have a completely different opinion today. Today I believe that it is not only unscientific but inherently cruel to sentence juveniles to life sentences without the hope of parole or release.”
We've had commentary on this blog discussing the legality of JLWOP sentences and the differences between teenage and adult brains. What are your thoughts on this issue?
On March 20th, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that could determine the constitutionality of sentencing teens to life without the possibility of parole. We will follow this case and provide updates and links to coverage.

Liz Wu is a Digital Accounts Manager at Prichard Communications, where she oversees digital outreach for Reclaiming Futures and edits Reclaiming Futures Every Day. Before joining the Prichard team, Liz established the West Coast communications presence for the New America Foundation, where she managed all media relations, event planning and social media outreach for their 6 domestic policy programs. Liz received a B.A. in both Peace and Conflict Studies and German from the University of California at Berkeley. She tweets from @LizSF.

Updated: February 08 2018