Black males are grossly overrepresented among juveniles who are sentenced to life without parole in the United States, according to a new study released by the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for juvenile sentencing reform.
The study, The Lives of Juvenile Lifers, surveyed more than 1,500 prisoners who were sentenced to life terms without parole when they were between the ages of 13 and 17. Of those juveniles, 97 percent are male and 60 percent are Black. In addition, the proportion of Blacks serving life for killing a white person far exceeds the proportion of whites sentenced to life for killing a Black person.
“Although it does not excuse their crimes,” the report says, “most people sent to prison for life as youth were failed by systems that are intended to protect children.”
The findings come just three weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles convicted of homicide to life without parole. There are currently thirty-three states that send youth to prison without the option of redemption.
Among its findings, the Sentencing Project study also found:
—Of those incarcerated, the vast majority come from violent homes, and nearly half have experienced physical abuse.
—Eighteen percent (17.9%) of the respondents were not living with a close adult relative just before their incarceration; some reported being homeless, living with friends, or being housed in a detention facility, treatment center or group home.
—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.
According to the authors of the report, the survey findings, “demonstrate high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, extreme racial disparities in the imposition of these punishments, sentences frequently imposed without judicial discretion, and counterproductive corrections policies that thwart efforts at rehabilitation.”
Due to outdated state or prison policies, 61.9% of juvenile lifers are not engaged in programming in prison. Studies have shown, however, that as years in prison pass, those engaged in constructive change while incarcerated are less likely to be the subject of disciplinary action and more inclined to become better citizens.
“Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said on behalf of the Supreme Court in a previous case from 2010. “Maturity can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation.”
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(Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)
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