Survey Finds Disturbing Trends in Childhood Violence, Racial Dynamics for Juvenile Lifers

Survey Finds Disturbing Trends in Childhood Violence, Racial Dynamics for Juvenile Lifers

An overwhelming majority of prisoners serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles were exposed to domestic violence and lived in poverty, while significant numbers failed in school, were influenced by friends in trouble with the law, and grew up in a home missing at least one parent who was incarcerated, according to a report by The Sentencing Project.

The report, based on the most comprehensive survey to date of prisoners serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, calls for the elimination of life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders. The report also recommends a closer inspection of the racial dynamics of the juvenile justice system, which imposes LWOP sentences on black youths at an alarmingly higher rate than on white youths.

“Juveniles serving life sentences have had their lives defined by a serious crime committed in their youth, but it is not a complete picture of who they are,” wrote Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., a research analyst for The Sentencing Project and the report’s author.

“Although it does not excuse their crimes,” she added, “most people sent to prison for life as youth were failed by systems that are intended to protect children.”

Researchers for The Sentencing Project collected data from 1,579 juvenile lifers across the United States between October 2010 and August 2011. The average time served by the prisoners surveyed was 15 years, and almost a fourth had been incarcerated for at least 21 years.

As children, more than two-thirds of the juvenile lifers saw illegal drugs sold where they lived, and one in three had resided in public housing prior to being incarcerated. More than half saw acts of violence in their neighborhoods weekly. Most – 79%, according to the survey – witnessed violence directly in their homes, while nearly half (46.9%) experienced physical abuse. Overall, one in five had been sexually abused – a rate that increased to almost four in five among female juvenile lifers.

“Violence is a learned behavior,” Nellis wrote, “and when it is demonstrated by adults in a home environment as a tool to resolve problems, children internalize this and, without intervention, are prone to repeat it.”

The survey further revealed that more than 25% of juvenile lifers had a parent in prison, and noted that “Mass incarceration has had a profound impact on communities of color, especially African American communities.” The report found that black youths are six times more likely than white youths to have had an incarcerated parent.

The Sentencing Project also collected race and ethnicity data for most of the 1,844 homicide victims of the survey’s participants. While the analysis of the data is complex, the survey found that – proportionally speaking – black juveniles arrested for killing a white victim were sentenced to life without parole far more often than white juveniles arrested for killing a black victim.

Unless factors such as prior offenses or the nature of the relationship between the assailant and the victim “could account for this large-scale disparity,” the report noted, “… we should be quite concerned about a policy that appears to perpetuate longstanding racial disparities in the justice system.”

Among several of the report’s recommendations, The Sentencing Project argued that eliminating juvenile LWOP “would involve the adoption of punishments proportionate to the crime while considering an offender’s age, maturity” and rehabilitative potential, and would not result in “serious, violent offenders escaping punishment.”

The report also recommended that juvenile lifers be allowed and encouraged to engage in rehabilitative programs; that they should be housed in age-appropriate pre-trial and post-conviction settings; and that criminal justice resources should be spent on youth intervention programs rather than “warehousing” juveniles in prison.

The United States is the only nation that imposes life without parole on juvenile offenders, and over 2,500 prisoners nationwide are serving LWOP sentences for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. Six states prohibit juvenile LWOP sentences: Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana, and Texas.

On June 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in two consolidated cases where 14-year-olds were automatically sentenced to life without parole after being convicted of homicide. The Court held that imposing mandatory LWOP sentences on juveniles was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. See: Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (2012).

Sources: “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey,” by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., The Sentencing Project (March 2012);