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Many Juveniles Still Illegally Sentenced to Life Without Parole

Black youth most often receive longer terms

Nadia Prupis

Only 13 out of 28 states have complied with a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling to abolish mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles, a report released this week by the Sentencing Project finds.

A majority of states have done nothing to pursue statutory reform, while others use loopholes to continue sentencing minors to long-term punishments, the report says. Overall, a total of 44 states still have the option to sentence people to life in prison for crimes they committed as children.

These excessively heavy prison terms are also a complicated factor in a racially disparate judicial system; according to the Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness and Equity, a disproportionate amount of black, Native American, and Hispanic youth face higher chances of incarceration as white youth.

Josh Rovner, who authored the SP report, notes national data showing that black minors are five times more likely than white minors to be arrested for curfew violations — a statistic that does not accurately reflect rates of crimes being committed across those same racial lines.

"The data we have and our own experience shows that teenagers are not behaving any differently," Rovner said. "It's arrest rates that are different."

The precedent set by the Supreme Court in 2012 was meant to enact sweeping changes in sentencing processes. Citing the "principle of proportionality," the decision stated that mandatory life sentences without parole for defendants under the age of 18 violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. It built on a previous ruling that struck down life sentences for non-homicide offenses and required juries to give consideration to mitigating factors such as mental development and potential for rehabilitation.

Yet more than half of the states that allow mandatory life sentences for minors have made no effort to repeal their laws, while several of those that complied with the ruling simply reduced the required minimums to several decades. Still others technically abide by the ruling by allowing life without parole as an option rather than as a mandate.

"To sentence young people into their elderly years amounts to a determination that some offenders lack the capacity to change, which violates the spirit, if not the letter, of both Supreme Court rulings," the SP report says.

A University of Texas study found that juveniles waiting to be tried as adults are often held in county jails, where they are denied access to services and programming that they may be legally required to receive.

How did this happen? In the last 20 years, the rates of trying juveniles in adult court have increased significantly. According to Dr. Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, this was caused in part by the upswing in crime during the late 1980s and early 1990s and compounded by media and policy-makers' claims that future generations would breed "severely morally impoverished juvenile superpredators."

They didn't. Homicide arrest rates declined 74 percent by 2008. But by then, tough-on-crime policies had grown in popularity, with lawmakers creating legislation that stopped analyzing developmental differences between children and adults and instead focused exclusively on the nature of a crime.

These kinds of tough-on-crime policies "ignore the possibility that there are juveniles who can be rehabilitated," Rovner told Common Dreams.

Mitigating factors that can contribute significantly to rates of juveniles committing "adult" crimes can include exposure to community violence and having family members in prison.

While it's certain that the punishment does not fit the crime, the trend also shows a connection between arrest rates and racial discrimination in the justice system. Nationwide, the estimated rate at which black youth receive life without parole sentences (6.6 per 10,000) is ten times greater than the rate for white youth (0.6 per 10,000).

Discrepancies in the juvenile justice system "[do] not stop with arrests," Rovner said. Black youths are "much more likely to be detained, and much more likely to be sent to adult facilities."

"The disparities continue to grow with each step of the process," Rovner said.

There has been some improvement along the way, Rovner said. A few states have proactively sought to end life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders; California and West Virginia now allow parole reviews after 15 years, while Utah allows it after 25.

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole.

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