Study finds life without parole sentences for juveniles increasingly rare, setting stage for Supreme Court review

social2(Washington, D.C.) States are abandoning life without parole sentences for juveniles at a rapid pace, according to a report released today by The Phillips Black Project. Since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated mandatory life without parole for juveniles (JLWOP) in 2012, nine states have abolished it, with six states acting within the past year. In actual practice, the sentence has dropped precipitously since its sudden peak in the mid-1990s and is increasingly isolated to outlier counties and states. For example, one county – Philadelphia, PA – accounts for almost 10 percent of all JLWOP sentences nationwide.

“Most of the nation’s abandonment of JLWOP, both in policy and in practice, demonstrates that sentencing children to die in prison, foreclosing all hope of redemption and rehabilitation, is anathema to who we are as a people. There is a growing consensus against the practice and the U.S. Supreme Court should hold juvenile life without parole unconstitutional in all cases,” said John Mills, the lead author of the study and Principal Attorney at the Phillips Black Project.

1442859710958In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment. On October 13, the Court will hold oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana, in which it will decide whether to apply the ban on mandatory JLWOP retroactively, i.e., on offenders whose appeals were finished at the time Miller was decided. A number of advocates, including Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, have urged the Court to rule that JLWOP is unconstitutional in all cases.

In the three years since the Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, nine states – Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming and Vermont – have abolished JLWOP, bringing the current number of states to completely outlaw the sentence to 15. California and Florida, which were previously the heaviest users of the sentence, have severely limited the circumstances where JWLOP can be imposed. North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Washington State eliminated JLWOP for felony murder, second-degree murder, and persons less than 16 years of age, respectively.

In actual practice, only a few states and a handful of counties impose JLWOP sentences. Just nine states – California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania – account for 82 percent of all JLWOP sentences. Five counties account for more than one-fifth of all JLWOP sentences. Those counties are: Philadelphia County, PA; Los Angeles County, CA; Orleans Parish, LA; Cook County, IL; and St. Louis City, MO.

From 1992 to 1999, 45 states passed laws expanding adult court jurisdiction over juveniles, exposing additional young offenders to life without parole sentences. Legislatures were sparked by the now discredited theory that a generation of superpredators was on the horizon. The superpredators never arrived, but many individuals are languishing under sentences premised on superpredator-era policies with little prospect of demonstrating that they are very different from the juvenile they once were.

Since 1992, a black juvenile arrested for homicide has been twice as likely to be sentenced to life without parole than his white counterpart. Texas only has persons of color serving JLWOP sentences. Eighty percent of the people serving JLWOP in Pennsylvania are people of color. This disparate treatment of persons of color warrants further examination to determine whether JLWOP sentencing has served any legitimate purpose.

The pace of abolition of JLWOP – a rate of three per year since 2012 – is faster than the rate at which states were repealing the death penalty for juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities in the years before the Court invalidated those punishments. To determine whether there is a national consensus against a given punishment, the Court typically assesses the number of states that allow the punishment, the direction and rate of legislative change, and the rarity with which the sentence is imposed in practice. All three metrics manifest a national consensus against JLWOP and, when faced with the opportunity, the Court should strike it down.

September 22, 2015
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