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Sentencing Project the Lives of Juvenile Lifers Survey Findings 2012

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The Lives of Juvenile Lifers:
Findings from a National Survey
Ashley Nellis, Ph.D.
March, 2012

For further information:
The Sentencing Project
1705 DeSales St., NW
8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036
(202) 628-0871
www.sentencingproject.org

This report was written by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Research Analyst at
The Sentencing Project. Extensive research assistance was
provided by Katherine Zafft and Cody Mason. The Sentencing
Project is immensely grateful to the survey respondents who
provided thoughtful and thorough responses to our questions and
who made this report possible.
Established in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and
effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in
sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices,
and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.
The work of The Sentencing Project is supported by many individual
donors and contributions from the following:
Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation
Ford Foundation
Bernard F. and Alva B. Gimbel Foundation
General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church
Herb Block Foundation
JK Irwin Foundation
Open Society Institute
Public Welfare Foundation
David Rockefeller Fund
Elizabeth B. and Arthur E. Roswell Foundation
Tikva Grassroots Empowerment Fund of Tides Foundation
Wallace Global Fund
Working Assets/CREDO
Copyright @ 2012 by The Sentencing Project. Reproduction of this
document in full or in part, and in print or electronic format, only by
permission of The Sentencing Project

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS |FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS:
FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY
Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside
prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope. Maturity can lead to
that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and
rehabilitation. A young person who knows that he or she has no chance to leave
prison before life’s end has little incentive to become a responsible individual.
Graham v. Florida, 2010

T

he United States stands alone worldwide in imposing sentences of life
without parole on juveniles.1 The U.S. achieved this unique position by
slowly and steadily dismantling founding principles of the juvenile justice

system. Today a record number of people are serving juvenile life without parole
(JLWOP) sentences in the U.S. for crimes committed before their 18th birthday.
Sentences of life without parole are often erroneously believed to translate to a
handful of years in prison followed by inevitable release. The reality is that a life
without parole sentence means that the individual will die in prison.
This report provides a new perspective on the population of individuals serving life
sentences without parole for crimes committed in their youth. It represents the
findings of a comprehensive investigation into this population that includes a firstever national survey of juvenile lifers. Through this effort we obtained in-depth
information from these individuals about their life experiences prior to their
conviction, as well as descriptions of their lives while incarcerated. The findings are
sobering, and should become an element of policy discussion regarding this extreme
punishment.

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THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

KEY FINDINGS
Although it does not excuse their crimes, most people sent to prison for life as youth
were failed by systems that are intended to protect children. Survey findings from
1,579 individuals around the country who are serving these sentences demonstrate
high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, extreme racial disparities in the imposition
of these punishments, sentences frequently imposed without judicial discretion, and
counterproductive corrections policies that thwart efforts at rehabilitation. Highlights
of this report include the following:
Socioeconomic Disadvantages, Education Failure, & Abuse


Juvenile lifers experienced high levels of exposure to violence in their
homes and communities


79% of individuals reported witnessing violence in their homes;



More than half (54.1%) witnessed weekly violence in their
neighborhoods.



Juvenile lifers, particularly girls, suffered high rates of abuse


Nearly half (46.9%) experienced physical abuse, including 79.5%
of girls;



77.3% of girls reported histories of sexual abuse; overall, 20.5%
of juvenile lifers report being victims of sexual abuse.



Juvenile lifers generally experienced significant social and economic
disadvantage in their homes and communities


A third (31.5%) of juvenile lifers were raised in public housing;



Eighteen percent (17.9%) of the respondents were not living with
a close adult relative just before their incarceration; some reported
being homeless, living with friends, or being housed in a
detention facility, treatment center, or group home.

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THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY



Juvenile lifers faced significant educational challenges


Two in five respondents had been enrolled in special education
classes;



Fewer than half (46.6%) of these individuals had been attending
school at the time of their offense;



The vast majority (84.4%) of juvenile lifers had been suspended
or expelled from school at some point in their academic career.

Extreme Racial Disparities in JLWOP Sentences


The racial dynamics of victims and offenders may play a key role in
determining which offenders are sentenced to juvenile life without parole


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%).

JLWOP Sentences Frequently Imposed Mandatorily


The majority of JLWOP sentences are imposed in states in which judges
are obligated to sentence individuals without consideration of any factors
relating to a juvenile’s age or life circumstances


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.

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THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Corrections Policies Curtail Efforts at Rehabilitation


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.



Many juvenile lifers are engaged in constructive change during their
incarceration when they are permitted the opportunity to do so


Two-thirds have attained a high school diploma or GED;



Despite long distances from home and family, many juvenile
lifers attempt to maintain close ties with loved ones through
phone calls, letters, and visits;



As years in prison pass, lifers are charged with declining numbers
of disciplinary actions.

5

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

A BETRAYAL OF AMERICAN JUVENILE JUSTICE
SYSTEM PRINCIPLES
Moreover, his sentence in my judgment, violates the 8th Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution…He was barely 15 when he committed the crime; he is emotionally
and psychologically immature; he is learning disabled and functioned for several
years below his peers; he has strong family support; he had never before been in any
kind of legal trouble; and the evidence in support of his motion [to be transferred to
the juvenile court] was overwhelming and essentially unrebutted…Sentencing him to
life without parole is quite simply hideous and a travesty of justice.
Dissenting Opinion of Judge Chapel,
Cipriano, v. Oklahoma, F-2000-890, 2001

The United States made a thoughtful and deliberate choice in 1899 to accommodate
developmental differences between adolescents and adults with the establishment of
juvenile courts. The reforms of that era created a separate system of justice for
juveniles that recognized differences in culpability and maturity. Jane Addams, one
of the original visionaries of the juvenile justice system, noted that the goal of the
system should be “…a determination to understand the growing child and a sincere
effort to find ways for securing his orderly development in normal society.”2
Over the course of the following years, most states enacted provisions for transferring
some youth out of juvenile courts and trying them in adult courts under limited
circumstances. In the last two decades, the circumstances under which transfer occurs
have expanded greatly. Part of the reason for the rise in sentencing youth to life in
prison was the upswing in crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fueled in large
part by the emerging crack cocaine drug markets and easy access to illegal guns.3 By
1993, the rate of homicides committed by juveniles had tripled from a decade
earlier.4 Policymakers, the media, and the public listened to dire warnings from
some that, “…on the horizon…are tens of thousands of severely morally
impoverished juvenile superpredators.”5 These so-called “superpredators” never

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THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

arrived; moreover, the juvenile homicide rate was already declining when this
statement was made, and homicide rates among juveniles have dropped steadily since
1993. The homicide arrest rate for 10-17-year-olds in 2008 of 3.8 per 100,000
represents a 74% decline from the peak arrest rate for juvenile-involved homicides in
1993, 14.4 per 100,000.6
Nonetheless, driven by media reports of celebrated cases and public fears, catch
phrases such as “adult crime, adult time” were popularized. Policymakers responded
with a frenzy of tough laws that disregarded developmental differences between
youth and adults, and instead focused exclusively on the crime. State legislatures
chipped away at the founding principles of the juvenile justice system by passing laws
that eased the way for young people to be transferred to and tried in adult courts,
thus circumventing the very courts that the U.S. had created to protect young
people. By the mid-1990s, every state had passed laws that either allowed or
mandated that teenagers be tried as adults under certain circumstances. As a result,
there was a steep rise in the number of teens who were sentenced to life without the
possibility of parole during the mid-1990s.
In their zeal to pass these laws, lawmakers failed to consider the full spectrum of
adult sentences to which they were subjecting juveniles, the inappropriateness of
these sentences given the developmental immaturity of juveniles, and the
consequences of mandatory imposition of these sentences in many cases.

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THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

JUVENILE LIFERS: A PORTRAIT OF DISADVANTAGE
Juveniles serving life sentences have had their lives defined by a serious crime
committed in their youth, but it is not a complete picture of who they are. Our
intention with the present research study was to broaden our understanding of the
features in their childhood that might explain, though not justify, their subsequent
criminal behavior. In addition, we aimed to fill the gap in knowledge about the
experiences of teenagers who are processed in the adult system for these lengthy
sentences. Finally, we wished to identify the present circumstances of those serving
life sentences without parole for crimes committed in their teenage years.
To learn more about this population of serious offenders, The Sentencing Project
engaged in an unprecedented national data collection effort beginning in late 2010 in
which we surveyed individuals serving JLWOP sentences. We received surveys from
all states* that currently house juvenile lifers as well as the federal government.7 Our
nationwide survey data collection effort lasted from October 2010 through August
2011 and yielded a response rate of 68.4%, or 1,579 individuals. As presented below,
respondents have been in prison an average of 15 years; 359 have been in prison at
least 21 years. One prisoner, now 67 years old, has already served 49 years in prison.
Table 1. Years in Prison
Less than 5 Years
5-10 Years
11-15 Years
16-20 Years
21-25 Years
More than 25 Years
Total
*

Except Louisiana.

Number
169
266
462
323
155
204
1,579

Percent
10.7
16.8
29.3
20.5
9.8
12.9
100.0

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THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Table 2. Description of Survey Respondents
Number

Percent

Gender
Male
Female
Total

1,534
45
1,579

97.2
2.8
100.0

Race
White
Black
Asian
American Indian
Other
Two or More Races
Total

387
940
38
19
139
29
1,552

24.9
60.0
2.4
1.2
9.0
1.9
100.0

Ethnicity
Latino
Non-Latino
Total

203
1,217
1,420

14.3
85.7
100.0

From the survey results we learned that the individuals serving these sentences had
many strikes against them before they engaged in the criminal activities that resulted
in life in prison. Survey respondents reported childhoods that were marked by
frequent exposure to domestic and community-level violence, problems in school,
engagement with delinquent peers, and familial incarceration. Because their cases
were waived to adult court, these factors—which arguably could mitigate their
culpability in the serious crimes for which they were charged—were frequently
inadmissible in court proceedings. Nevertheless, they are significant factors which
shaped their worldview from a very young age and help explain the actions of this
population of young serious offenders. Despite these unfortunate beginnings, the
results demonstrate that respondents have often spent their years in prison
attempting to improve their lives through education, engagement in programming,
and maintaining close ties with relatives and loved ones.

9

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Home Environment

I never had a father and because there was no man in my house, I looked to the gang
in the streets for love and support. I started using [marijuana] when I was 15 years
old, and to support it I stole and sold drugs. I stopped going to school because I was
not learning or getting special help with my learning disability…My mother also had
a drug problem and was not around that much.
Juvenile Lifer, California
One’s home life in childhood shapes perceptions of the world and provides
instruction on right and wrong. Children model what they see in their immediate
environment and when they experience trauma it has lasting effects on their
perceptions and actions.
In our survey, we asked offenders to tell us about their upbringing. We learned that
our respondents experienced highly elevated levels of poverty, abuse, exposure to
community violence, and familial incarceration, and were frequently raised in homes
with few adult guardians.
Just before their incarceration, roughly one in three respondents was living in public
housing, a measure of poverty. In some states it was substantially higher. For
example, in Alabama 43.6% of respondents were living in public housing, as were
39.7% of respondents in North Carolina. Nearly all who were living in public
housing were youth of color (93.6%).
While the majority of respondents (82.1%) were living with at least one close adult
relative in the home (e.g., parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles) just before their
incarceration, 17.9% of the respondents were not living with a close adult relative;
instead, they reported being homeless, living with friends, living with friends of their
family, or being housed in a detention facility, or group home. Of those living with a
close adult relative, for more than half of them (59.7%), it was a single-parent home;

10

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

fewer than one in four lived with both parents. Just over 15% were being raised by a
grandparent. Thirty-five (2.2%) juvenile lifers were living in foster care.

Exposure to Violence

I was adopted by my grandparents at the age of two. My real parents both died due
to drug related deaths. This is the first and only time I’ve been in trouble with the
law; it was a big mistake that I dread every day of my life. I was 17 years old and
hanging around the wrong crowd.
Juvenile Lifer, Michigan
Many of the juvenile lifers who eventually committed acts of violence were
themselves first the victims of violence. High levels of physical and sexual abuse were
reported by the prisoners serving life sentences. Most (79%) witnessed violence in
the homes, and nearly half (46.9%) experienced physical abuse. Overall, one in five
lifers was sexually abused. Girls were particularly subject to sexual abuse; in this
sample, 77.3% of girls reported being sexually abused. Violence is a learned behavior,
and when it is demonstrated by adults in a home environment as a tool to resolve
problems, children internalize this and, without intervention, are prone to repeat it.8
Table 3. Childhood Violence Exposure Reported among Juvenile Lifers

Physical Abuse
Among Girls
Sexual Abuse
Among Girls
Witnessed Violence at Home
Among Girls

Number

Percent "Yes"

730
35
316
34
1,239
37

46.9
79.5
20.5
77.3
79.0
84.1

In 2008, the U.S Department of Justice partnered with the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention to conduct the first-ever nationwide representative survey of
more than 4,500 children under 18 to better understand the frequency and role of

11

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

violence in their lives.9 Survey results revealed that children in the general
population are exposed to unacceptable levels of violence in their homes, schools, and
communities, too, but these levels are far lower for than for juvenile lifers. For
example, it is estimated that one in 16 young people in the general public experiences
sexual abuse10; but among the JLWOP respondents, one in five reported sexual
abuse. In addition, survey respondents were over six times more likely to report
having witnessed family violence in their home than youth in the general public.11
Substantial proportions of respondents were exposed to violence in their
communities of origin as well. The world they saw both inside and outside their
homes was frequently marked by violence and many of the respondents not only
observed violence but were personally victimized through community violence, too.
Five out of eight (62.8%) youth perceived their neighborhood to be unsafe, and
more than two-thirds saw drugs sold openly where they lived. More than half
(54.1%) of the juvenile lifers witnessed acts of violence on at least a weekly basis.

Figure 1. Exposure to Community Violence

Experienced a violent victimization in the community

71.1

Saw violence in neighborhood at least once a week

54.1

Drugs sold openly

71.1

Neighborhood not considered safe from crime

62.8

0

10

20

30

N’s range from 1,463 to 1,568.

40

50

60

70

80

12

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Family Members in Prison

One of the many consequences of the unprecedented prison growth over the past 30
years is the breakup of family units, especially among African American families. In
2007, 1.7 million children had a parent in prison; over 70% of them were children
of color.12 Mass incarceration has had a profound impact on communities of color,
especially African American communities. African American children are more than
six times as likely as white children to have had a parent imprisoned.13
This study allowed us to find out how many people sentenced to life as youth had
had a close family member in prison either currently or at some point in their life.
More than a quarter of juvenile lifers have had a parent in prison and 59.1% of
juvenile lifers have had a close relative in prison.
When one or both parents are removed from the home due to incarceration, this
leaves the children to be raised with another relative, a child welfare agency or even
on the streets. Parental incarceration is often associated with emotional and
behavioral problems among their children, including elevated aggression, violence,
defiance, cognitive and developmental delays, and extreme antisocial behavior.14
Children of incarcerated parents are also more likely to drop out of school, become
delinquent, and subsequently become confined in institutions themselves.15
Incarceration of one’s father has been documented to demonstrate a particularly
strong influence.16 Children with an incarcerated father express significantly more
aggression than other children, an effect that can be detected as early as 5 years of
age.17 In addition, the negative effects of an absent father are even stronger when the
father is incarcerated than when he is absent for any other reason.18

13

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

School Attendance and Childhood Friendships

The reasons surrounding what I am incarcerated for do not stem from an animalistic
mentality of ‘kill or be killed.’ My foolish behavior arose from an adolescent
tendency [toward] ‘wanting to fit in’…
Juvenile Lifer, Michigan
School failure and friendships with negative peers have been shown to influence
delinquency.19 Fewer than half (46.6%) of the survey respondents were attending
school at the time of the crime, and nearly all (84.4%) had been suspended or
expelled at some point in their academic career. The school experiences in this group
were challenging even when they did not include a suspension or expulsion. In the
words of an inmate’s mother, her son was “…thrown around like a dirty rag” by the
school system for years.20 Two in five respondents had been enrolled in special
education classes.
In addition to attendance at school, youth have a better chance of staying out of
trouble if they associate with positive, law-abiding youth. We asked the respondents
to tell us about their friendships, and most responded that some (43.1%) or most
(40.4%) friends had been in trouble with the law.
In addition to showing signs of trouble in school and within the family, 60.5% of
juvenile lifers reported having a juvenile record. Despite these early signs of trouble,
89.5% had never had an adult conviction until the one that resulted in the life
sentence, which challenges the notion that these youth were especially depraved or
incapable of reform.

14

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

DYNAMICS OF THE CRIME
Racial Dynamics of Victims and Offenders
Our survey captured race and ethnicity data on most of the 1,844 homicide victims
as well and this is reported below. Of the victims, nearly half were white, one third
were black and 9.2% were Latino.
Table 4. Race/Ethnicity of Victims
Number

Percent

White

866

47.0

Black

633

34.3

Latino

169

9.2

Other

116

6.3

60

3.3

1,844

100.0

Unknown/Didn’t Report
Total

Multiple studies on the death penalty have shown that race is a prominent factor in
the imposition of this sentence. Specifically, the race of the victim has been found to
correlate strongly with seeking and receiving death sentences. A study of 2,000
murder cases in Georgia in the 1970s found that defendants were more than four
times as likely to receive the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim
was a person of color, and that black defendants had the greatest likelihood of
receiving the death penalty.21 Another study of Maryland’s death row population
identified that in December of 2002, all 13 men on death row had been sentenced to
death for killing white victims and in 8 of the cases, the offender was African
American.22 Because of the longstanding findings on the death penalty, we sought to
determine whether similar racial dynamics pertained in JLWOP sentences as well.

15

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

To make initial comparisons between JLWOP sentences and homicides qualifying
for JLWOP, we analyzed juvenile homicide arrest information in JLWOP-eligible
states from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report’s Supplemental Homicide Reports
dataset for the years 1976 through 2007, the years during which most of our
respondents were convicted of their offenses.23 We find that 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 overall have
taken a white person’s life (23.2%). What is more, we find that the odds of a
JLWOP sentence for a white offender who killed a black victim are only about half as
likely (3.6%) as the proportion of white juveniles arrested for killing blacks (6.4%).
While we do not have detailed information on all the variables that may contribute
to a JLWOP sentence, the scale of the race differential over this three-decade period
is quite remarkable, and parallels the range of consistent findings on imposition of
the death penalty. African American youth with a white victim are far more likely to
be sentenced to life without parole than their proportion of such crimes would
suggest.24 It is possible that factors such as prior record or the nature of the
relationship between victim and assailant could account for this large-scale disparity,
but unless such factors can fully explain these dynamics we should be quite
concerned about a policy that appears to perpetuate longstanding racial disparities in
the justice system.

16

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Table 5. Race of Homicide Victims and Offenders

White Homicide Victims
Total

JLWOP Sentences

Black Offenders

23.2% (6,488)

43.4% (319)

White Offenders

76.8% (21,510)

56.6% (416)

Black Homicide Victims
Total

JLWOP Sentences

Black Offenders

93.6% (24,118)

96.4% (567)

White Offenders

6.4% (1,651)

3.6% (21)

Location of the Offense
More than half of the juvenile arrests for homicides between 1976 and 2007
occurred in large urban areas with residential populations of 250,000 or more.25 The
populations of the jurisdictions where a JLWOP sentence resulted have a different
distribution, however, with a larger percentage of sentences originating from
homicides that occurred in smaller cities and rural areas. This difference suggests
that the likelihood of receiving a life without parole sentence is greater in smaller
jurisdictions than in large urban areas where homicides are more frequent. Whereas
only 1% of juvenile homicide arrests occurred in jurisdictions with fewer than 2,500
residents, 4% of the JLWOP sentences originated there. And, while 54.5% of the
juvenile homicide arrests occurred in cities with a population of 250,000 residents or
more, these areas only accounted for 41% of the JLWOP sentences.

17

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Figure 2. Homicide Arrest Location Compared to JLWOP Sentences
60

53.8

50
40.9

40
30
20

16.3

10
1

4

7.6

10.5
6.6

11.3
8.2

2,5004,999

10,00024,999

25,00049,999

10.5

15

10.6

3.2

0
< 2,500

Juvenile Homicide Arrests

50,000- 100,000>
99,999 249,999 250,000
JLWOP Sentences

It is possible that these differences originate from variations in prosecutorial
charging. It is also likely that there is greater media attention on violent crimes
committed by juveniles when they occur in smaller cities because they are relatively
rare. Further study of these discrepancies between location of JLWOP sentences
and juvenile homicides would clarify how these differences came to be.

18

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Courtroom Experience

How is it, you can be put in an extremely difficult situation, which you have no
experience in and be expected to make adult decisions, when you really don’t
understand consequences? [And] then be considered an adult when you have never
taken care of yourself or had adult responsibilities?
Juvenile Lifer, Illinois
Most (79%) juvenile lifers were represented by a court-appointed attorney while one
in five retained a private attorney. A plea from the prosecuting attorney was offered
in half of the cases (50%) and 26.5% of those who were offered a plea took it. 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.

19

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

LIFE IN PRISON
Housing Before and After Conviction

Indeed, during the first months of his incarceration, Evan was attacked by an older
inmate and stabbed nine times.
Reply Brief in Support of Petition for Writ of Certiorari for Evan Miller,
USSC No. 10-9646, 2012
A juvenile’s case can end up in the adult system because of age, offense, prosecutorial
discretion, or judicial discretion. Federal laws protect juveniles from being housed in
close proximity to adults when they are maintained in the juvenile justice system but
once a case is waived to the adult system, there are no federal protections against
separating juveniles from adults while awaiting trial or upon conviction.26 This
federal mandate is in place in the juvenile justice system because of the known
dangers to young people when they commingle with adult offenders. Teenagers face
a heightened risk of suicide, sexual assault and physical assault when housed in adult
prisons.27 Among our respondents, only 19.3% were retained in juvenile placements
before trial; the majority (56.1%) were held in adult jails with at least some contact
with adult inmates.

20

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Figure 3. Housing Pre-Trial (N=1,539)

23.5

19.3

Juvenile Detention Center
Jail, No Contact with Adult Inmates

24.7

Jail, Some Contact with Adult Inmates

32.6
Jail, General Population

By the time of their conviction, 47.2% of the juvenile lifers were at least 18 years old
and thus it is reasonable to expect that they would be placed in the general
population of a prison, though some states allow young offenders to be held in
juvenile facilities until they are as old as 24 years of age. Few survey respondents who
were still under 18 at conviction had been housed in age-appropriate detention
settings as they began their life sentence. Instead, the vast majority were placed
immediately in general population with adult inmates without protections for their
young age or physical vulnerability.

21

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Figure 4. Housing Post-Conviction (N=805)
1.0

Juvenile Detention Center

9.7
7.9

Adult Prison, Separate Unit from Older Prisoners

9.2
Adult Prison, Some Contact with Adult Prisoners
72.2

Adult Prison, General Population
Death Row

Disciplinary Action in Prison
In our survey, we aimed to identify changes in behavior over time. Recall that some
of the juvenile lifers have now been in prison for several decades. One way to
determine whether convicted serious offenders become less dangerous over time is to
review disciplinary reports filed against them in prison. Research finds that inmates
tend to act out in their early period of incarceration, but that this behavior often
dissipates as they age and grow accustomed to their environment.28
Adjusting to prison is difficult. Inmates often feel they have to establish a sense of
toughness and resiliency to secure their safety. Combine this with the fact that this
population entered prison as teenagers, surrounded by inmates several years older,
and it is not unreasonable to expect that it would take a few years for young inmates
to adjust to their new environment. In addition, young people frequently require
more reminders about rules than adults in all contexts and the prison environment is
no exception.

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Almost all (94.8%) of our respondents reported disciplinary actions against them at
some point, typically including disobeying orders, possessing contraband, failing a
drug test, and fighting. But survey data demonstrate that the rate at which juvenile
lifers engage in problematic conduct in prison declines over time.
We asked survey respondents to identify the time period(s) in which they received
disciplinary reports. We also looked at the volume of disciplinary reports, while
taking into consideration the length of time the offender had been in prison. 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.
Table 6. Disciplinary Actions in Prison over Time
Years in Prison
Under 10 Years
10-15 Years
16-20 Years
21-30 Years
More than 30 Years

No Disciplinary Action for at Least 3 Years
18.5
34.6
44.6
58.2
70.8

While there is often a perception that inmate behavior is dominated by violence and
manipulation, in reality, many long-sentenced inmates such as lifers become
positively engaged in their environment. Ethnographic accounts from lifers show
that they view prison as their home, “…an involuntary one, to be sure—but still a
domestic world in which they have an investment; they care about such things as the
level of cleanliness, the quality of the food, the variety of activities, and even relations
with their keepers.”29 Moreover, many lifers view their prison environment as all they
have left to control in life and thus “…strive to make the most of the resources

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available in prison. As a result, they obey the rules and generally stay out of trouble,
secure good jobs, and generally fill their days with structured activities—all so that
they might live fully in the present and give as little thought as possible to the world
they left behind.”30
Rehabilitation, Education and Connections to Family

This man made some terrible mistakes as a fifteen-year-old in 1993. He was then
sentenced to life in prison and began serving his sentence in 1995…I find [him] to
be an intelligent, thoughtful, self-aware individual who has worked exceedingly hard
to turn his life around. He has educated himself in a wide variety of subjects,
including a great interest in spiritual matters. He’s a poet and has written some very
good prison poetry. Through his poetry, I have discovered the extent of [his]
knowledge of himself, his sensitivity, his determination to remain balanced in a
situation often filled with chaos. I’ve also seen his despair and fear of dying in
prison, never having achieved any of life’s goals that all young men think and dream
about. He no more belongs in prison than I do.
Mentor of Juvenile Lifer, Florida
Our survey identified that 61.9% of juvenile lifers are not presently participating in
rehabilitation programming. Our follow-up questions for those who were not
participating revealed that for two-thirds of them, this is because of restrictions
placed by corrections systems: one-third (32.7%) of the non-participants are not
permitted to participate because of their life sentence and another 28.9% are in
prisons without sufficient programming or have taken everything available to them
already. Nevertheless, two-thirds of the juvenile lifers have completed high school or
obtained a GED since coming to prison and an additional 24.1% have plans for
completion.

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Figure 5. Explanations for Lack of Programming Participation (N=779)

No Interest
18.2

On Waiting List

32.7
8.9

No Programs Available/Have Taken All Available
Programming
Solitary Confinement/Custody Restriction

9.4

28.9
Not Permitted because Life Sentence

Unlike people sentenced to prison as adults, those sentenced to prison in their youth
are more likely to have been living at home with at least one adult guardian at the
time of the offense. The inmates serving life sentences for crimes committed in their
youth generally attempt to maintain close ties with family members and friends
despite substantial challenges in doing so. Nearly half (47.9%) of the juvenile lifers
responded that their families lived more than three hours away from the prison where
they were housed. Only one in three juvenile lifers with families living far away ever
received a family visit. Those who have family members within a three hour drive
were 2.5 times more likely to receive regular (monthly) visits.

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Figure 6. Frequency of Visits by Family and Friends (N=1,556)
40
35

Family Lives Over 3 Hrs Away

30

Family Lives Up to 3 Hours Away

25
20
15
10
5
0
Never

Once a Year Every Few
Months

Monthly

Weekly

Ties to family and friends are most frequently maintained through phone calls; half
(50.1%) of the respondents reported weekly phone calls with family and friends;
91.6% exchange mail with loved ones at least every few months.
Figure 7. Maintenance of Connections with Family and Friends
Weekly
Monthly
Every Few Months
Once a Year
Never
0

10

20

Calls

30

Letters

N’s range from 1,556 to 1,567.

40

Visits

50

60

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THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
The information obtained from respondents shows a different picture than one that
defines them solely by their crime of conviction. What we observe in these data is
that, before their crime, these individuals experienced heightened community and
domestic violence, substantial problems in school, friendships with antisocial peers,
elevated levels of poverty, and parental incarceration. These childhood experiences
placed these youth in disadvantaged positions for success. This does not justify the
serious offenses they subsequently committed, but it does help us to understand their
behavior, as all these factors are connected to deviance.
These findings also suggest that race and ethnicity may play a role, whether conscious
or not, in sentencing youth to JLWOP. Three-quarters of the respondents were
youth of color. Additionally, there is preliminary evidence that African American
youth with white victims are considerably more likely to receive a life sentence
without parole than such offender/victim dynamics overall would suggest.
We also find that upon conviction youth are typically housed with adult offenders.
While federal protections for youth retained in the juvenile justice system are in
place, once a youth is moved to the adult system, these protections are not afforded
despite widespread evidence of heightened abuse.
Many of these individuals have now been in prison for decades, and in these
intervening years many have engaged in rehabilitation programming, received an
education, and maintained strong ties to family. Many of the respondents have
indicated a desire to turn their lives around, with substantial progress in doing so.
Most have now obtained high school diplomas or a GED, and nearly 40% are
currently engaged in programming. Many more would likely be engaged in
programming were they permitted to do so, but because of prison restrictions or lack
of programming they are excluded. Prisoners attempt to maintain close ties to
friends and family as well, a known correlate to successful reentry upon release.31

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JLWOP: HISTORICAL AND LEGAL PERSPECTIVES
The use of life-without-parole sentences for our nation’s youth violates the principles
that first shaped our protected treatment of juvenile offenders, a hallmark of the
American justice system for over a century. Today, the United States continues to
sentence juveniles to life without parole while the rest of the world has rejected this
practice. Through JLWOP, courts have discarded unprecedented numbers of young,
redeemable lives. We arrived at this accepted practice through a series of mistaken
beliefs and misguided policies about youth’s culpability; these have landed teenagers
in adult criminal court, thus subjecting them—and, in some cases, mandating them–
to LWOP. The Supreme Court is now reviewing the appropriateness of treating
juveniles as if they were adults in a number of criminal matters and has thus far
consistently concluded that youth are quite different than adults in their maturity,
responsibility, and capability for reform.32
It is important to view our current situation in its historical context. The rise in
juvenile life sentences reached its peak during the late 1990s in response to a
temporary upswing in youth violence, yet the favored response was a permanent fix:
the enactment of “adult crime, adult time” sanctions including life without parole for
youth. Crime has now been declining for more than a decade and youth violence is
at historic lows, but there is no evidence that JLWOP sentences have produced these
declines.33
Over the past few decades, developments in the medical field have allowed scientists
to observe individuals’ cognitive development with improved precision; and these
findings show that teenagers are indeed different. Finally, we previously knew less
about the dangers of placing youth in adult prisons; today, we see that this practice
creates threats to individual and public safety.

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A “Statutory Accident”
The imposition of life sentences for young teenagers has never been endorsed
explicitly by state legislatures; rather, it came into being by way of a “statutory
accident.”34 In his opinion in Graham v. Florida, which eliminated JLWOP as a
sentencing option for nonhomicides committed by juveniles, Justice Kennedy noted:
“[t]he statutory eligibility of a juvenile offender for life without parole does not
indicate that the penalty has been endorsed through deliberate, express and full
legislative consideration.”35 Similarly, in Thompson v. Oklahoma, which eliminated
the death penalty for teens under 16, Justice O’Connor noted, “When a legislature
provides for some 15-year-olds to be processed through the adult criminal justice
system, and capital punishment is available for adults in that jurisdiction, the death
penalty becomes at least theoretically applicable to some defendants…[H]owever, it
does not necessarily follow that the legislatures in those jurisdictions have deliberately
concluded that it would be appropriate.”36
Sentencing young people to life without parole only becomes an option once an
individual is transferred to the adult system, and in at least 17 states, this sentence is
mandatory upon conviction for specific crimes without regard to age. In
Pennsylvania, for example, juveniles can receive a sentence of life without parole
through two decisions over which a judge has no control. First a juvenile of any age
charged with murder is automatically placed in the adult court system.37 Second,
upon conviction, all juveniles are required to be sentenced to life without parole. It
is therefore not surprising that Pennsylvania leads the nation in these sentences. The
majority of JLWOP sentences have been applied in states where the sentence is
mandatory.38

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The Supreme Court’s View on Appropriate Sentences for Juveniles
Evolving views on appropriate responses to juvenile crime are evidenced by recent
Supreme Court decisions. In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled in 2005
that the death penalty was unconstitutional for people who were younger than 18 at
the time of their offense.39 The basis for this decision was largely derived from expert
medical knowledge about adolescent brain development. Specifically, the Court
rested its decision on the argument that the use of the death penalty was cruel and
unusual for young people because it failed to meet the penological goals of
retribution and deterrence. In order for a court’s punishment goal of a retributive
effect to take hold, one has to be fully culpable for his or her actions, but the
undeveloped brain—inherent in adolescence—limits one’s culpability.40
For deterrence to be an effective violence prevention strategy, one would have to
believe that potential serious offenders were aware of the sentence they would receive
and would be deterred by it. Criminologists fail to see evidence for this in the data,
however. In reality, and as many parents would agree, young people often lack the
foresight to appreciate the consequences of their actions. The fact is that most
offenders—especially adolescents—do not believe they will be caught for their
actions. As Justice Kennedy noted, “The same characteristics that render a juvenile
less culpable than adults suggest…that juveniles will be less susceptible to
deterrence.”41
In 2010 the issue of extreme sentences for juveniles received international attention
once more when the U.S. Supreme Court relied on medical science to resolve that
young people who commit nonhomicide offenses cannot be sentenced to life without
parole. While the Graham v. Florida ruling affected less than 6% of the JLWOP
population, it opened the door for review of the imposition of life sentences for all
offenses committed by juveniles that bar any possibility for parole.
The case surrounded the constitutionality of imposing a life sentence on Terrance
Graham, who was sentenced at the age of 17 for violating his probation by

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committing a home invasion robbery, possessing a firearm, and associating with
persons engaged in criminal activity. Despite a call by the prosecuting attorney for a
shorter sentence, the judge sentenced Graham to life without parole. In his
statement, he said:

The only thing I can rationalize is that you decided that this is how you were
going to lead your life and that there is nothing we can do for you….We
can’t do anything to deter you. This is the way you are going to lead your
life, and I don’t know why you are going to…I have reviewed the statute. I
don’t see where any further juvenile sanctions would be appropriate…the
only thing I can do now is to try to protect the community from your
actions.42
In the Graham decision, the Court refuted the sentencing judge’s assessment of
Graham’s potential for reform, stating that it “…forswears altogether the
rehabilitative ideal. By denying the defendant the right to reenter the community,
the State makes an irrevocable judgment about that person’s value and place in
society.” Here the Court acknowledged that the dismissal of rehabilitation as a viable
goal for juvenile offenders is in direct violation of society’s preferred response to
young offenders established over a century ago.
The Supreme Court is now taking up the issue again and will soon consider the
constitutionality of applying JLWOP sentences to very young offenders convicted of
homicide in situations where the sentence was mandatorily applied as well as
situations where the convicted offender was not the principal actor.43

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IMPACT OF JLWOP ON INDIVIDUALS AND PUBLIC
SAFETY
Harmful Consequences of Juvenile Transfer
Treating juveniles as if they were adults in criminal matters has proven to be a failure
for public safety. There is now a growing body of evidence that has emerged on the
array of problems associated with this practice. Many state policymakers are
beginning to reconsider transfer policies and are shifting youth back to the juvenile
courts where they were previously handled. Mississippi, Connecticut, and Illinois
have all enacted legislation in the past several years that limits the ability to transfer
juveniles to the adult system.44
A key factor contributing to this shift is the consistent finding that placing youth in
the adult system creates problems for the community later, as transferred youth are
more likely to recidivate upon release and their offenses are more likely to be violent
than similar youth who were retained in the juvenile system.45 Young people in the
adult system are significantly more likely to be sexually and physically assaulted than
if they had been retained in the juvenile justice system.46 In addition, several studies
demonstrate higher rates of criminal activity upon release. And, research notes the
absence of a noticeable deterrent effect of transfer laws in lowering juvenile crime. In
2010, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention issued a
report enumerating these documented problems associated with transferring youth to
criminal court. “Thus, the extant research provides sound evidence that transferring
juvenile offenders to the criminal court does not engender community protection by
reducing recidivism. On the contrary, transfer substantially increases recidivism.” 47

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JLWOP and Violent Crime
The expansion of transfer laws resulted in a rise in the use of juvenile life without
parole in the mid-1990s. While some observers suggest that imposition of these
sentences was responsible for the decline in crime that developed in the early 1990s,
there is much reason to be skeptical about such claims. First, the imposition of
JLWOP sentences reached its peak in 1996, several years after juvenile crime rates
had already begun to decline. In studies to date, the overall effect of increased
incarceration on reducing crime has been estimated to be no more than 10% to 25%
of the violent crime decline.48 Instead, the decline has more to do with restrictions
on the availability of handguns, enhanced community-based policing strategies,
changing landscape of the drug market, and a stronger economy in the 1990s.49 As a
result, crime went down nearly everywhere, both in states where JLWOP is
permitted as well as states where it is prohibited.
A recent study investigated the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to
eliminate the death penalty as a sentencing option for those under 18 on juvenile
homicide rates. Controlling for relevant factors, the researchers failed to find a
change in the frequency of juvenile homicides after the decision.50 In other words,
there had been no deterrent effect of the death sentence on juvenile homicides above
any general deterrent effect of the justice system.
As a case in point, consider New York City, lauded nationally as achieving some of
the greatest declines in crime over the past two decades. New York City, along with
many other urban areas, suffered from high levels of violence in the late 1980s and
early 1990s. The state has since experienced steadily falling crime rates, largely
because of improved policing practices, better utilization of crime data, waning crack
markets, and enhanced reliance on community-based detention alternatives. From
1990 to 2000, New York City experienced a 73% drop in homicides, almost twice
the national level.51 Juvenile homicide arrests in New York declined 67.3% during
this time, also substantially more than the national decline for juvenile homicide
arrests during this period (52.7%).

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What is significant here is that New York is a state that does not permit juveniles to
receive life without parole except in cases of terrorism52 and there are no juveniles
serving life without parole sentences in the state. Therefore, the state recorded these
unprecedented gains despite the absence of any potential deterrent effect of JLWOP
sentences.
The Cost of Life Sentences
Life-sentenced inmates will grow old in prison and eventually die, but before they
do, they will require substantially greater health care and medical services. Thus, life
sentences add to the rising geriatric prison population and place heavy financial
burdens on states. The average cost of incarcerating a person is $22,000 annually.53
A life sentence that begins in one’s late teens can be expected to last at least 55 years.
But with rising costs of older inmates, beginning at age 55, the annual cost is closer
to $65,000,54 yielding a lifetime cost to taxpayers of $2 million per prisoner. Most
state departments of corrections report spending over 10% of their annual budget on
the health care and housing needs of elderly prisoners.55

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RECOMMENDATIONS FOR REFORM
Public safety is compromised when at-risk youth are not provided with adequate,
evidence-based, early intervention and violence prevention programming. As a
society we can invest early in the lives of high-risk youth to provide skills and support
and thus alter the pathways that lead to crime. Waiting until a young person
commits a serious violent crime before positively intervening in his or her life is both
cruel and misguided. Instead of immersion in evidence-based prevention and early
intervention programming to offset their risk factors, for too many individuals, their
first formal “intervention” is a life-without-parole sentence.
The seriousness of the crimes committed by these individuals cannot be dismissed.
All juvenile lifers were convicted of serious crimes and usually a life has been lost.
Family members of victims have had a terrible injustice done to them and their lives
are forever changed. There is little support for victims in the criminal justice system
in terms of healing from the loss and compensating for the harms done; surviving
family members are frequently left out of the justice process despite how intimately
they are involved in the offense that occurred.
Eliminate Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP)
Enactment of laws that allowed for lifelong prison sentences occurred in the absence
of comprehensive review, expertise, and careful weighing of the consequences of a
juvenile life-without-parole sentence. We are not aware of a single hearing at the
state or federal level on the appropriateness of JLWOP until recent years; some
juvenile lifers had already been imprisoned for decades before the appropriateness of
this sentence for youth offenders was brought into question. Only a handful of
studies on the matter have been produced.

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Responses to some of the questions that have now emerged suggest that these
questions ought to have been considered long before thousands of lives were forever
changed by a sentence that would fate them to die in prison. It is far too simple to
pass harmful criminal justice policies and far too difficult to undo them once the
damage is realized.
Eliminating juvenile life without parole would not result in serious, violent offenders
escaping punishment. Instead, this would involve adoption of punishments
proportionate to the crime while considering an offender’s age, maturity, and
capacity for personal transformation through rehabilitation. The imposition of
sentences that deny any hope for release contradicts what we know about young
people’s potential for change. There is a wide gap between the view that some
youthful offenders deserve stiff punishment and the perspective that no juvenile,
under any circumstance, should ever be afforded the opportunity to seek release from
imprisonment.
Allow and Encourage Life-Sentenced Inmates to Engage in Rehabilitation
Programming
Rehabilitation programming in prison is often reduced in corrections budgets in
times of fiscal constraints, despite the reality that 93% of prisoners return home.56
For life-sentenced inmates, the opportunities for rehabilitation are even slimmer; the
limited number of available slots are generally reserved for those who will be released
the soonest, so lifers are consistently pushed to the back of the line, if they are
permitted to engage in programming at all. This is especially problematic for
juveniles with life sentences, as their sentences are, by definition, longer than most.
Many youth whose life sentences were determined to be unconstitutional in 2010
under the Graham v. Florida ruling now face challenges in demonstrating reform in
order to be considered for release, as some have been denied the opportunity for
programming because of their life sentences. This poses a challenge to the Supreme
Court’s requirement that, “What the State must do, however, is give

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defendants…some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated
maturity and rehabilitation.”57
House Youth in Age-Appropriate Settings Pre-Trial and Post-Conviction
To the extent that some youth will continue to be transferred to adult court and
processed as if they were adults, this does not mean that they need to be housed with
older, adult offenders and have their lives put in danger on a daily basis because of
their physical and psychological vulnerabilities. Instead, youth placed in the adult
system should be housed separately from adults and commingling should be
prohibited. Ideally, youth serving long sentences should be placed in juvenile
detention centers until their early 20s before being transferred to an adult facility.
Address Racial Disparities
Racial and ethnic disparities observed at this stage of the system are greater than
elsewhere in the spectrum of sanctions for juveniles who commit crime. While some
disparity might be explained by differential treatment in the justice system, we also
know that since a high proportion of juvenile lifers are from poor, high-violence
neighborhoods, this can contribute to higher rates of involvement in serious crime.
Greater investment in prevention and early intervention strategies in high-need
communities would result in lower incidences of life sentences for juveniles.
In addition, closer inspection of the racial dynamics between offenders and their
victim(s) in lengthy sentences including JLWOP sentences may reveal unwarranted
racial disparity in sentence imposition. Though most of the attention on this topic is
devoted to death sentences, there is good reason to expand such analysis to other
death-in-prison sentences. Building on evidence from death penalty research,
analysis of racial dynamics between offender and victim in the allocation of JLWOP
sentences, both retrospective and prospective, will allow better understanding about
how sentences are applied.58

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Invest in Prevention, Not Warehousing
Instead of spending scarce resources on warehousing lives that could be transformed,
we could be spending money more wisely, helping victims, and improving public
safety. The nonpartisan American Law Institute recommends a “second look” after
10 years of imprisonment for life-sentenced youth. 59 Notwithstanding the
probability that most prisoners would not be granted release after only 10 years, if
even one eligible inmate was determined to be ready for release upon this “second
look,” this could save a typical state $1.8 million in needless incarceration. The
money saved could instead be directed at prevention and intervention programs that
have a strong evidence-base in lowering crime: preschool programs, parenting skills
development, multi-systemic therapy, vocational training, substance abuse treatment,
and a host of other effective interventions that would reduce crime and repair
families and communities from damage associated with violence.

As kids we know right from wrong but we do not know the full consequences.
Please ask people to give us a second chance.
Juvenile Lifer, Michigan

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APPENDIX: METHODOLOGY
The aim of our national survey of juvenile lifers was to learn more about this
population using self-report data obtained directly from the individuals serving these
sentences. In order to accomplish this, we drafted a 15-page, 76-question paper-andpen survey to be answered by the sentenced prisoners themselves. The survey
questions were derived from known factors that correlate with engagement in
delinquency, including attachment to school, family functioning, community crime,
family imprisonment history, and physical and sexual abuse history. The survey also
asked a series of questions pertaining to the courtroom experience, the prison
atmosphere, engagement in rehabilitation programming, disciplinary actions since
arriving at prison, and visitation with family and friends.
The Sentencing Project conducted its data collection phase of this study between
October 2010 and August 2011. We obtained mailing addresses of all individuals
serving life without parole for crimes committed before their 18th birthday by
contacting each state’s department of corrections for this information. We then
contacted each juvenile lifer with a cover letter and a survey.
Preparation of Survey Questions
Our objective in this research was to learn more about the lives of juvenile lifers and
provide a more complete picture of their lives at the time of the offense as well as
their lives today. To create the questionnaire, we consulted with a variety of
researchers, practitioners, advocates, and attorneys to gain their feedback on question
items. We also consulted the relevant academic literature to determine the
appropriate and necessary domains to cover in our survey.

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Survey Administration
We developed and followed a systematic process for obtaining names, prison
identification numbers, and mailing addresses of all those who qualified for our
survey. To each inmate who was identified as a juvenile lifer and for whom we had a
valid mailing address, we sent one copy of the complete questionnaire, a cover letter,
and a self-addressed stamped envelope if possible. Some states did not allow this (e.g.,
Michigan) so inmates were asked to obtain a stamp on their own. Surveys were in
the field between October 2010 and August 2011.
Individuals in Arizona and California received the survey in both English and
Spanish because of the increased probability of Spanish-speaking inmates in these
two states. We received five completed surveys in Spanish.
We sent a second survey to inmates in states with an initial response rate of under
65%. Second surveys were sent in November 2010 to the following states: Alabama,
Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New
Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington.
In the cover letter, we introduced the purpose of our research and requested
participation while also informing recipients that they would receive neither benefit
nor consequence for participating in our study.60 We informed inmates who were
currently represented by an attorney to alert them to this questionnaire and gain their
consent. For each survey, we also provided a self-addressed, stamped enveloped
whenever this was allowed by the prison.
Gaining Institutional Review Board Approval
Three states requested that we submit a research proposal to their institutional review
board (IRB) before they would release the prisoners’ names and/or allow us to

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administer surveys to them. Upon approval from the IRB in Pennsylvania and
Michigan, we received a list of the JLWOP inmates in their prisons. In
Massachusetts, the procedure was slightly different; to further protect the anonymity
of their inmates, the prisons delivered the IRB-approved survey directly (rather than
allowing us to mail them). Inmates were instructed to send their completed surveys
to us. It is because of this extra step that Massachusetts’ response rate is substantially
lower (39.0%) than other states.
Protecting Inmate Privacy
The sole reason we originally requested identifying information about the prisoners
serving JLWOP sentences was to send them our cover letter and questionnaire. Once
we received and entered all of the information from the completed questionnaires,
we discarded all identifying information. Survey data information is not identifiable
by name.
Procedure for Handling Ongoing Litigation
In instances where survey candidates had their cases in court, we worked with each
state’s lead litigators to ensure the protection of their clients. In Pennsylvania and in
Michigan, we elected not to survey about two dozen juvenile lifers who are currently
appealing their cases. In addition, we determined that it would not be feasible to
survey any of the juvenile lifers in Louisiana because of ongoing litigation. The final
number of surveys sent to the remaining juvenile lifers was 2,309. In response we
received 1,579 completed surveys, yielding a response rate of 68.4%.

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ENDNOTES
Ayepong, T. (2010). Children left behind bars: Sullivan, Graham, and juvenile life without
parole sentences. Northwestern University School of Law’s Journal on International Human
Rights 9(1): 83-102; Leighton, M. and de la Vega, C. (2008). Sentencing our children to die in
prison: Global law and practice. University of San Francisco Law Review 42 : 983-986.
2 Zimring, F. E. (2005). American juvenile justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3 Blumstein, A. and Cohen, J. (1999). Diffusion processes in homicide. Washington, DC:
National Institute of Justice; Zimring, F. (2007). The great American crime decline. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
4 Cork, D. (1999). Examining space-time interaction in city-level homicide data: Crack markets
and the diffusion of guns among youth. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 15, 379-406.
5 DiIulio, J. (November 27, 1995). The coming of the superpredator. The Weekly Standard.
6 Puzzanchera, C. (2009). Juvenile Arrests 2008. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention.
7 Six states forbid JLWOP sentences and in 11 states and the District of Columbia, JLWOP is
allowed but not used. The six states that prohibit JLWOP are Alaska, Colorado, Kansas,
Kentucky, Montana, and Texas. Colorado prohibited JLWOP in 2007 and Texas prohibited
JLWOP in 2009; the law was not made retroactive in either state, so there are still individuals
serving life sentences in these two states. The 11 states that allow JLWOP but do not
currently use it are Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota,
Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia.
8 Widom, C. S. (1989). Child abuse, neglect, and violent criminal behavior. Criminology 27(2):
251-271.
9 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV). For more information, visit
www.unh.edu/ccrc.
10 Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Ormrod, R. Hamby, S., and Kracke, K. (2009). Children’s exposure
to violence: A comprehensive national survey. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention.
11 Hamby, S., Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., and Ormrod, R. (2011). Children’s exposure to intimate
partner violence and other family violence. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention.
12 Schirmer, S., Nellis, A., and Mauer, M. (2009). Incarcerated parents and their children:
Trends 1991-2007. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
13 Western, B. and Pettit, B. (2010, Summer). Incarceration and social inequality. Dædalus: 819.
14 Craigie, T. L. (2011). The effects of paternal incarceration on early childhood behavioral
problems: A racial comparison. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 9: 179-199.
15 Schirmer, S., Nellis, A., and Mauer, M. supra note 12.
16 Rakt, M. V. D., Nieuwbeerta, P., and Graaf, N. D. D. (2008). Like father, like son: The
relationships between conviction trajectories of fathers and their sons and daughters. British
Journal of Criminology 48, 538-556.
17 Craigie, T. L., supra note 14.
18 Geller, A., Cooper, C. E., & Garfinkel, I. (2010). Beyond absenteeism: Father incarceration
and child development. Fragile Families Working Paper. Princeton: Princeton University;
Murray, J. and Farrington, D. (2005). Parental imprisonment: Effects on boys’ antisocial
behavior and delinquency through the life course. Child Psychology and Psychiatry 46(2):
1269-1278.
19 Farrington, D. (1998). Predictors, causes, and correlates of male youth violence. Crime and
justice: A review of research 24: 421-475; Dahlberg, L.L. (1998). Youth violence in the United
States: Major trends, risk factors, and prevention approaches. American Journal of Preventive
Medicine 14 (4): 259-272; Marcus, R. F. and Sanders-Rios, J. J. (2001). The influence of
attachment on school completion. School Psychology Quarterly 16 (4): 427-444.
1

42

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Personal correspondence with the mother of a juvenile lifer.
Baldus, D. C., Pulaski, C, and Woodworth, G. (1983). Comparative review of death
sentences: An empirical study of the Georgia experience. Journal of Criminal Law and
Criminology, 74(3): 661–753.
22 Paternoster, R. and Brame, R. (2008). Reassessing race disparities in Maryland capital
cases. Criminology 46(4): 971-1008.
23 Fox, J. A. and Swatt, M. L. (2009). Uniform Crime Reporting Program Data [United States]:
Supplementary Homicide Reports with Multiple Imputation, Cumulative Files, 1976-2007
[Computer file]. Compiled by the Northeastern University, College of Criminal Justice.
ICPSR24801-v1. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research
[producer and distributor]. Only states from which JLWOP surveys were received are included
in this analysis.
24 Present analysis is limited to black and white victims and offenders, which represents the
majority of respondents and their victim(s).
25 Fox, J. A. and Swatt, M. L. , supra note 23.
20
21

Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (42 USC 5601).
Forst, M., Fagan, J. and Vivona, T. S. (1989). Youth in prisons and training schools:
Perceptions and consequences of the treatment-custody dichotomy. Juvenile and Family
Court Journal 39: 1-13.
28 Johnson, R. (1996). Hard time: Understanding and reforming the prison. 2nd Ed.
Wadsworth: Albany.
29 Ibid, p.117.
30 Ibid, p. 117.
31 Minnesota Department of Corrections (2011). The effects of prison visitation on offender
recidivism. St. Paul, Minnesota Department of Corrections; Shinkfield, A. J., and Graham J.
(2009). Community reintegration of ex-prisoners: Type and degree of change in variables
influencing successful reintegration. International Journal of Offender Therapy and
Comparative Criminology 53(1): 29-42.
32 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, Graham v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010); In Re J.D.B.
564 U.S. __ (2011).
33 Kuntrell v. Hobbs; Miller v. Jackson, In the U.S. Supreme Court, Brief of Jeffrey Fagan et al.,
as Amicus Curiae in support of petitioner, January 17, 2012.
34 Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Jovon Knox 599 WDA 2009.
35 Graham v. Florida 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010).
36 Thompson v. Oklahoma 487 U.S. 815 (1988).
37 Pennsylvania technically allows a reverse waiver of a case back to juvenile court but in
practice it is almost never used.
38 States defined as having mandatory JLWOP sentences upon conviction for homicide are:
Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota,
Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South
Carolina, and South Dakota. These states are determined to be mandatory JLWOP states
because upon conviction, the court must sentence the defendant to LWOP and cannot
impose a lesser sentence based on age.
39 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
40 Roper v. Simmons, In the U.S. Supreme Court, Brief of the American Psychological
Association as Amicus Curiae in support of petitioner, July 19 2004; see also, Grisso, T., and
Schwartz, R. (eds.). (2000). Youth on trial: A developmental perspective on juvenile justice.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
41 Roper v. Simmons 543 US 551 (2005).
42 Graham v. Florida 130 S. Ct. 2011 (2010).
43 Miller v. Alabama USSC No. 10-9646; Jackson v. Hobbs USSC No. 10-9647.
44 Arya, N. (2011). State trends: Legislative victories from 2005 to 2010: Removing youth
from the adult criminal justice system. Washington, DC: Campaign for Youth Justice.
26
27

43

THE LIVES OF JUVENILE LIFERS | FINDINGS FROM A NATIONAL SURVEY

Steiner, B. and Wright, E. (2006). Assessing the relative effects of state direct file waiver
laws on violent juvenile crime: Deterrence or irrelevance? Journal of Criminal Law and
Criminology, 96:1451-1478.
46 Woolard, J., Odgers, C., Lanza-Kaduce, L., and Daglis, H. (2005). Juveniles in adult
corrections settings: Legal pathways and developmental considerations. International Journal
of Forensic Mental Health 4(1): 1-18.
47 Redding, R. (2010). Juvenile transfer laws: An effective deterrent to delinquency?
Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, p. 6.
48 Spelman, W. (2000). The limited importance of prison expansion. In Blumstein and
Wallman, The Crime Drop in America, Eds. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press; Western,
B. (2006). Punishment and inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
49 King, R., Mauer, M., and Young M. (2005). Incarceration and crime: A complex relationship.
Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.
50 Flexon, J., Stolzenberg, L., and D’Alessio, S. J. (2011). Cheating the hangman: The effect of
Roper v. Simmons decision on homicides committed by juveniles. Crime and Delinquency
57(6): 928-949.
51 Zimring, F., supra note 3, p.13.
52 New York Penal Law §490.25(d).
53 Stephan, J. (2004). State prison expenditures, 2001. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice
Statistics.
54 National Institute of Corrections (2004). Corrections Health Care: Addressing the needs of
elderly, chronically ill, and terminally ill inmates. Washington, DC: National Institute of
Corrections.
55 Aday, R. (2003). Aging prisoners: Crisis in American prisons. Praeger: Westport.
56 Petersilia, J. (2003). When prisoners come home: Parole and prisoner reentry. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
57 Graham v. Florida 560 US 2011 (2010).
58 In 2009, the North Carolina legislature passed the Racial Justice Act (North Carolina Code
§15A-2010), which permits death row inmates to present evidence of racial bias in court if
they suspect their race or the race of the victim affected the sentence they received.
59 American Law Institute (October, 2010). Model penal code: Sentencing: Council draft No. 3.
Philadelphia: American Law Institute.
60 A copy of the cover letter and survey questions is available upon request.
45

FURTHER READING AVAILABLE AT www.sentencingproject.org:
No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America
Throwing Away the Key: The Expansion of Life without Parole Sentences in
the United States
The Sentencing Project’s Amicus Brief for Graham v. Florida and Sullivan
v. Florida
The Meaning of ‘Life’: Long Prison Sentences in Context

1705 DeSales Street, NW, 8th floor
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202.628.0871 • Fax: 202.628.1091
www.sentencingproject.org

 

 

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