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Since 2005, Supreme Court rulings have accepted adolescent brain science and banned the use of capital punishment for juveniles, limited life without parole sentences to homicide offenses, banned the use of mandatory life without parole, and applied the decision retroactively.
States can remedy the unconstitutionality of mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences by permitting parole hearings rather than resentencing the approximately 2,100 people whose life sentences were issued mandatorily.21,22
These new laws provide mandatory minimums ranging from a chance of parole after 15 years (as in Nevada and West Virginia) to 40 years (as in Nebraska). Twenty-five states still allow life without parole as a sentencing option for juveniles.
Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia do not have any prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, either due to laws prohibiting the sentence or because there are no individuals serving the sentence at this time.
Racial disparities plague the imposition of JLWOP sentences. Sixty-two percent of people serving JLWOP, among those for whom racial data are available, are African American. While 23% of juvenile arrests for murder involve an African American suspected of killing a white person, 42% of JLWOP sentences are for an African American convicted of this crime. White juvenile offenders with African American victims are only about half as likely (3.6%) to receive a JWLOP sentence as their proportion of arrests for killing an African American (6.4%).32
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. Nationally, it costs over $33,000 per year to house an average prisoner. This cost roughly doubles when that person is over 50.33 Therefore, a 50-year sentence for a 16-year old will cost upwards of $2.25 million.
Under current Supreme Court precedent, curbs on juvenile life without parole sentences do not guarantee release. Rather, Supreme court holdings and the reforms passed in response to those holdings by state legislatures provide an opportunity for individualized review before a parole board or a judge for a new sentence, taking into consideration the unique circumstances of each defendant.
Harsh school environments and disciplinary practices often leave children with learning and behavioral disabilities more likely to be suspended, fall behind in schools and enter the juvenile justice system.
Almost 20 years after the unanimous passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, experts debate whether the first-of-its-kind law is capable of ending sexual abuse in prisons, including juvenile detention facilities. But they agree it has been a step in the right direction.
Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit for juvenile justice reform, has seen this play out in Texas over the past decade, as multiple sex abuse scandals in detention centers have led to reforms.
Davossi Wisdom was 2 when he was adopted by a family in Des Moines, Iowa, but he says he often felt out of place as a child. Now 21, Wisdom says life in the juvenile justice system felt easier than staying away from negative influences on the outside. He recalls encounters with law enforcement starting at age 9. (Photos courtesy of Davossi Wisdom)
In fact, nearly a third of girls in the juvenile justice system report experiencing sexual abuse in the past, compared to 7% of boys, according to a 2015 study by Right4Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Ms. Foundation for Women.
To prevent sexual abuse in detention, Marx said, the juvenile justice system as a whole needs to be more sensitive to trauma that children have faced before they enter. PACE, whose mission focuses on girls, has advocated for all-female courts, probation teams and all-female staff at juvenile facilities. 2b1af7f3a8