Witness

A blog about forensic psychology

No Other Country Condemns Children to Life Behind Bars

There are 2,500 serving life for crimes committed as children.

Life without possibility of parole for a 13-year-old?!" a European colleague exclaimed, clearly disbelieving my story.

With the Land of the Free far out of step with the rest of the world, wonder over our criminal justice policies is not uncommon internationally, but nowhere moreso than regarding our treatment of juveniles. We are the only country in the world who condemns juveniles to spend their entire life behind bars for crimes committed as children.

(We're also way out of step in our overall incarceration rates and in our penchant for solitary confinement, too, but that's another story. See this New York Times story for more on that.)

Now, the first-ever national survey documents numbers far higher than even I imagined: not just a handful, but more than 2,500 Americans are serving life without parole for crimes committed before the age of 18.

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The oldest prisoner in the survey, now 67, has served half a century in prison so far. Just stop for a moment and ponder the implications of that.

The Sentencing Project's report, The Lives of Juvenile Lifers, comes just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the cases of two 14-year olds, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which will address questions about the constitutionality of sentencing teens to life without the possibility of parole.

The national survey draws a portrait of severe disadvantage experienced by those serving life sentences without parole: juvenile lifers were exposed to high levels of violence in their homes and their communities. Among the 45 girls serving life, three-fourths experienced sexual abuse before their crimes.

Photo credit: Richard Ross, Juvenile in Justice

"Most juveniles serving life without parole sentences experienced trauma and neglect long before they engaged in their crimes," stated Ashley Nellis, research analyst of The Sentencing Project and author of the report. "The findings from this survey do not excuse the crimes committed but they help explain them. With time, rehabilitation and maturity, some of these youth could one day safely re-enter society and contribute positively to their families and their communities."

It will come as no surprise to most of you that race has much to do with who gets this draconian sentence. African Americans, who make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, represented 60 percent of these children, five times their proportion of the population. They are especially likely to be serving life without parole if they killed a white person.

From a fiscal standpoint alone, the report notes, the costs to states of incarcerating someone from their teens into their twilight years, when health costs rise steeply, is at least $2 million per prisoner.

The report advocates spending more money on prevention programs, instead of 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. 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."

The full report, which I highly recommend, can be read or downloaded here.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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