According to a recent study released by The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for juvenile sentencing reform, Black males are grossly overrepresented among juveniles that are sentenced to life without parole in the United States.
For the study, entitled “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers,” 1,500 juveniles sentenced to life without parole while between the ages of 13-17 were surveyed. The report has surfaced at a crucial moment. Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles convicted of homicides to life without the possibility of parole. Thirty-three states currently allow for this kind of sentencing.
Among the findings of the report are chilling data on how this kind of sentencing impacts the lives of young Black men. Of all juveniles that are sentenced to life without parole, 97 percent are male, and 60 percent are Black. Furthermore, the proportion of blacks serving life for killing a white person is much higher than that of whites sentenced to life for killing blacks.
And that’s not all.
“• Of those incarcerated, the vast majority comes from violent homes, and nearly half had experienced physical abuse.
• Forty percent of all JLWOP prisoners had been in special education classes, and less than half had been in school when they committed their crimes.
• More than a quarter had a parent in prison, and 60 percent had close relatives in prison.
‘As a society we are off track in the ways we punish youth for their misdeeds,’ says Ashley Nellis, author of the survey. ‘Juveniles are not adults, which is why we developed a separate juvenile justice system. But over time these attitudes have shifted, and we are quick to throw these lives away. Treating youth as if they are adults does not work.’
What is especially troubling about the study, adds Mark Osler, a law professor and former federal prosecutor who participated in a recent panel discussion about the study, is ‘the differential value of victims by race. That has deep, troubling roots in American law. There are things like race that are bubbling up that are deciding factors (in JLWOP sentences).'”
Is it unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without parole?
Is it worth ignoring the systemic factors that disproportionately pull youth of color into the criminal justice system?
Sound off below!