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Policy Brief: Juvenile Life Without Parole

Juvenile Life Without Parole:

An Overview

Today, more than 2,500 individuals are serving a life sentence without possibility
of parole for crimes committed as children. Juveniles serving life without parole
(JLWOP) are unique to the United States; no other country currently imposes the
sentence on people under 18 years old.
This policy choice is not shared among all states. Twelve
states and the District of Columbia have banned life
sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles;
in a handful of other states, no one is serving the sentence
(see Figure 1). Following the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court
ruling in Miller v. Alabama (132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012)), states
and the federal government are required to consider
the unique circumstances of each juvenile defendant
in determining his or her sentence; mandatory life
sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles
are unconstitutional.
Two-thirds of JLWOP sentences occur in just five
states: Pennsylvania (472), Michigan (356), Florida (355),
California (293), and Louisiana (228). (Following the
passage of Californias SB 9 in 2013, most of this states
prisoners are getting new sentences.) Seventy-three
children sentenced to life without parole were 13 or 14
years old at the time of their offense.1
Recent research on adolescent brain development
confirms the commonsense understanding that children
are different from adults in ways that are critical to
identifying age-appropriate criminal sentences. This
understanding Justice Kennedy called it what any
parent knows2 was central to three recent Supreme
Court decisions excluding juveniles from receiving the
harshest sentencing practices.

Supreme Court Rulings

the sentence for those convicted of any other crime.

In 2012, the Court ruled that judges must consider
the unique circumstances of each juvenile offender,
banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for
all juveniles.

Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

The Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be
sentenced to death for crimes committed when they
were less than 18 years old, writing that the death
penalty is a disproportionate punishment for the young;
immaturity diminishes their culpability. The Roper ruling
affected 72 juveniles in 12 states.3 Between 1976 and the
Roper decision, 22 defendants were executed for crimes
committed as juveniles.4

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)

Having banned the use of the death penalty for
juveniles in Roper, the Court left intact the sentence of
life without parole as the harshest sentence available for
crimes committed by people under 18. Most of the 72
individuals who were on death row prior to the Roper
decision had their sentences converted to life without
parole. In Graham v. Florida, the Court banned the use
of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of
homicide. The ruling applied to at least 123 prisoners
77 of whom had been sentenced in Florida.5

Court precedents recognize that crimes that do not

Recent Supreme Court rulings have banned the use of
result in death are less deserving of the most serious
capital punishment for juveniles and limited life without
punishments (Kennedyv.Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008)).
parole sentences to homicide offenders and banned
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Policy Brief: Juvenile Life Without Parole

Figure 1: States that have banned or limited the use of juvenile life without parole sentences

Banned JLWOP

Source: Data collected by The Sentencing Project

Thus, having defined the maximum punishment for all

juvenile offenders (life without parole), the Court ruled
that punishment must be limited to the most serious
crimes (those involving homicide).

Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v.

Hobbs, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012)
Following Ropers exclusion of the death penalty for
juveniles and Grahams limitation on the use of life
without parole, approximately 2,500 offenders were
serving sentences of life without parole for crimes
committed as juveniles, all of whom were convicted of
In 2012, deciding Miller and Jackson jointly, the U.S.
Supreme Court held that, for juveniles, mandatory life
without parole sentences violate the Eighth Amendment.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kagan emphasized that

No JLWOP Prisoners

judges must be able to consider the characteristics of

juvenile defendants in order to issue a fair sentence.
Adolescence is marked by transient rashness, proclivity
for risk, and inability to assess consequences, all factors
that should mitigate the punishment received by juvenile
defendants. Approximately 2,000 prisoners serving
JLWOP may be affected by this ruling.

Retroactivity following Miller

The Miller ruling affects mandatory sentencing laws in
29 states and the federal government. States have been
mixed in interpreting the retroactivity of Miller. Some
state Supreme Courts (Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts,
Mississippi, Nebraska, and Texas) have ruled that Miller
applies retroactively while other states (Louisiana,
Minnesota and Pennsylvania) have ruled that Miller is
not retroactive. Cases are still pending in Florida and
Washington. State legislative responses have been mixed

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as well, but most states have yet to change their statutes,
leaving the vast majority of Miller-eligible prisoners
awaiting word about their prospects for resentencing.

Individuals Serving
Juvenile Life without Parole

Policy Brief: Juvenile Life Without Parole

80% of girls reported histories of physical abuse
and 77% of girls reported histories of sexual

Racial Disparities

Racial disparities plague the imposition of JLWOP

sentences.9 While 23.2% of juvenile arrests for murder
involve an African-American suspected of killing a
white person, 42.4% of JLWOP sentences are for an
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia do not have
American-American convicted of this crime. White
any prisoners serving life without parole, either due to
juvenile offenders with African-American victims are
laws prohibiting the sentence or because there are not
only about half as likely (3.6%) to receive a JWLOP
any juveniles serving the sentence at this time. For the
sentence as their proportion of arrests for killing an
remaining 35 states, all but five incarcerate fewer than
African-American (6.4%).
100 prisoners.

Childhood Experiences
The life experiences of the approximately 2,500 people
serving juvenile life sentences vary, but they are often
marked by very difficult upbringings with frequent
exposure to violence; they were often victims of abuse
themselves. Justice Kagan, in the Miller ruling, ruled
that Alabama and Arkansas erred because a mandatory
sentencing structure does not tak[e] into account the
family and home environment (Miller Slip Op at 15).
The petitioners in the cases, Kuntrell Jackson and Evan
Miller, both 14 at the time of their crimes, grew up
in highly unstable homes. Evan Miller was a troubled
child; he attempted suicide four times, starting at age
6 (Miller Slip Op. at 4). Kuntrell Jacksons family life
was immers[ed] in violence: Both his mother and his
grandmother had previously shot other individuals
(Miller Slip Op. at 16). His mother and a brother were sent
to prison.7 The defendant in Graham, Terrance Graham,
had parents who were addicted to crack cocaine (Graham
Slip Op. at 1).

Cost of Life Sentences

Aside from important justice considerations, the
financial cost of JLWOP sentences is significant. A
life sentence issued to a juvenile is designed to last
longer than a life sentence issued to an older defendant.
Housing juveniles for a life sentence requires decades
of public expenditures. Conservative estimates of the
annual cost of incarceration per inmate suggest that it
is approximately $31,000.10 Beyond age 55, the annual
cost is closer to $65,000,11 mostly due to higher medical
costs. Therefore, a lifetime sentence for a juvenile will
cost taxpayers approximately $2 million.

What Makes juveniles


In amici briefs written on behalf of the young defendants

in Roper, Graham, and Miller, organizations representing
health professionals, such as the American Academy
of Child Adolescent Psychiatry and the American
Psychological Association, explained current research
In 2012, The Sentencing Project surveyed people on immature brains.
sentenced to life in prison as juveniles and found the
In Miller, Justice Kagan noted that adolescence is
defendants in the above cases were not atypical.8
marked by immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to
79% witnessed violence in their homes
appreciate risks and consequences, all factors that limit
an adolescents ability to make sound judgments. Justice
32% grew up in public housing
40% had been enrolled in special education Kagan cited Graham and J. D. B. v. North Carolina (546
U.S. ___ (2011)) in noting that juvenile defendants are
Fewer than half were attending school at the at a substantial disadvantage in criminal proceedings;
they are less likely than adults to be able to assist in their
time of their offense
own defenses (working constructively with counsel) and
47% were physically abused
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Policy Brief: Juvenile Life Without Parole

they are likely to respond poorly to interrogation. Even

before Roper, states routinely recognized differences
between juveniles and adults in other contexts. Almost
every state prohibits juveniles from voting, from serving
on juries, and from getting married without parental

into consideration the unique circumstances of each

defendant. In many other countries the period before
a mandated review is 10 to 15 years.13 If adequate
rehabilitation has not occurred during these years in
prison, as decided by experts, the individual should
remain in prison and his/her case should be reviewed
again in another few years. Nor is it appropriate to
The Graham decision emphasized the importance eliminate life sentences in name only, replacing them
of giving juvenile offenders a chance to become with excessively lengthy prison terms that can reasonably
rehabilitated. These individuals have a substantial expected to last for an offenders entire life.
capacity for rehabilitation. But many states deny this
opportunity: approximately 62% of people sentenced There is mounting support for this reform in select
to life without parole as juveniles do not participate in states. Motivated by the Miller decision, the state of
prison programs in large part due to state prison policies California (home to one of the largest populations of
that prohibit their participation or limited program JLWOP defendants) now affords prisoners a meaningful
chance at parole after 15-25 years if their crime occurred
when they were a juvenile. Reforms are underway in
other states as well.

Momentum for Reform

Eliminating juvenile life without parole does not suggest

guaranteed release of these offenders. Rather, it would
provide that an opportunity for review be granted after
a reasonable period of incarceration, one that takes

The United States is out of step with the rest of the

world in its treatment of juveniles who commit serious
crimes. Sentences that close the door on rehabilitation
and second chances are cruel and misguided.

1 Equal Justice Initiative (2007). Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year Olds to Die in Prison. http://www.eji.org/
2 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)
3 Death Penalty Information Center. U. S. Supreme Court: Roper v. Simmons, No. 03-633. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/u-ssupreme-court-roper-v-simmons-no-03-633
4 Death Penalty Information Center. Facts About the Death Penalty. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf
5 Graham (slip op. at 2).
6 That count likely underestimates the true scope of the population of juvenile prisoners who will serve the rest of their lives in
prisons. Under these definitions, juveniles sentenced to virtual life sentences (such as a 99-year prison term) are not defined
as JLWOP inmates even though they are guaranteed to die in prison barring a commutation or other change in their sentence.
7 Denniston, L. (2012). Argument Preview: Youthful crimes, life sentences. http://www.scotusblog.com/2012/03/argumentpreview-youthful-crimes-life-sentences/
8 Nellis, A. (2012). The lives of juvenile lifers: Findings from a national survey. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project.
9 Ibid.
10 Henrichson, C. and Delaney, R. Vera Institute of Justice (2012). The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers.
11 National Institute of Corrections (2004). Corrections health care: Addressing the needs of elderly, chronically ill, and terminally ill
inmates. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Corrections.
12 Op. cit. 8
13 American Law Institute (2010). Model penal code: Sentencing: Council draft No. 3. Philadelphia, American Law Institute.

This briefing paper was written by Joshua Rovner, State Advocacy

1705 DeSales Street NW, 8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036
Tel: 202.628.0871
Fax: 202.628.1091

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.