Life Without Parole for Juveniles – Not Your Great-Great-Grandfather’s Juvenile Justice System

This week the Supreme Court began hearing arguments on the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles as young as 14 years old to life imprisonment without parole. As of 2009, 2,589 inmates  serving life without parole sentences in the United States were less than 18 years of age when they committed their crime, 17 percent of them in Pennsylvania.

An infographic from Amnesty International displays additional descriptive data on juveniles sentenced to life without parole, including the fact that for nearly 60 percent of the sample, the sentence was given for their first criminal conviction.

If you are interested in learning more about this subset of the prison population, The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey by Dr. Ashley Nellis of  The Sentencing Project is an excellent examination of the environment, history and nature of the crimes committed by youth currently serving sentences of life without parole.  Findings include, histories of exposure to violence, physical and sexual abuse, racial disparities in sentencing, and the inability to attend prison programming due to lifer status.  A complete copy of the report is available at The Sentencing Project website.

This report, in addition to the headlines around the current Supreme Court case and the memory of the travesty in Luzerne County,  have only crystallized for me the complete transformation of the juvenile justice system from one created to reform a system characterized by harsh punishments and little distinction between youth and adult offenders, to the punitive one operating today.