Life without Possibility of Parole for Young People Reflects the Failures of Our Broken Justice System

Our justice system in the United States should be grounded in the values of rehabilitation, redemption, and fairness.  To this end, it must draw a clear distinction between youth and adults, and should ensure youth are treated in an age-appropriate manner.  This is the very reason a juvenile justice system was created– because of what we know about the special needs of young people and their fundamental emotional, behavioral, and developmental differences from adults.  But too frequently the current system ignores this essential consideration of age and maturity, and youth become subject to the adult criminal justice system that has its own deeply-rooted problems. 

This injustice is reflected most starkly in the lifetime incarceration of youth without the possibility of parole.  While our juvenile justice system was founded on the belief that young people have the potential to grow and change, almost 2,500 young people have been denied any opportunity in their lifetime to prove they have been rehabilitated and are safe to return to our communities.[1]  This practice is an extreme example of other large-scale problems throughout our juvenile and criminal justice systems.  Specifically, the sentencing of youth to life without parole highlights many systemic failures of our justice system, which include: 1) overly punitive treatment of youth; 2) disproportionate minority contact and racial disparities in sentencing and incarceration; 3) mandatory minimum sentences and lack of judicial discretion; and 4) inadequate assistance of counsel. 

Overly Punitive Treatment of Youth

Research confirms that young people are uniquely suited for rehabilitation.[2]  Young people do not have adult levels of judgment, impulse control, or ability to assess risks.[3]  The areas of the brain affecting judgment and decision-making typically are not fully developed until a person reaches his or her early 20’s.[4]  Still, youth are subjected to excessively harsh treatment in the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems.  The overly punitive approach to youth crime results in a range of injustices– from mandatory detention for status offenses to life without parole sentences for more serious crimes.

  • Youth crime rates have dropped steadily since the 1990s, yet rates of incarcerating youth have increased.  According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the number of youth held in pre-trial detention has increased 72% since the early 1990s.[5] 
  • Over 200,000 youth under 18 are removed from the juvenile justice system and tried as adults each year.[6] 
  • There are severe consequences for youth who are transferred to the adult criminal justice system.  Young people become eligible for mandatory sentencing and life without the possibility of parole when they are tried in adult courts.[7]  In addition, youth are placed at a higher risk of assault, abuse, and death in the adult court system.[8]  And federal protections for young people do not apply to youth sentenced as adults.[9]

Disproportionate Minority Contact and Racial Disparities in Sentencing and Incarceration

A glimpse at the people serving life without the possibility of parole provides a vivid example of the racial inequalities seen throughout the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.  Consider that:

  • The arrest rate of African American youth is nearly two times that of white youth.  African American youth are 1.4 times more likely to be detained than white youth arrested for the same crimes, and are twice as likely to be transferred to adult court.[10]
  • African American youth are 10 times more likely than their white peers to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.[11]  This is just one example of disparities in sentencing: a 2001 Journal of Law and Economics empirical study of sentencing in federal courts found that, on average, African Americans of all ages are given sentences twice as long as whites.[12]
  • Although African Americans comprise only 12% of the overall population,[13] they make up more than half (56.1%) of youth sentenced to life without parole.[14] This is almost identical to the disparity seen among the overall population sentenced to life without parole, where 56.4% are African American.[15]

Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Lack of Judicial Discretion

Justice demands that when a crime is committed, the system should hand down a sentence appropriate for the offense.  However, the rise of mandatory minimum sentencing and lack of judicial discretion have distorted this core value of the American justice system, denying judges and juries the ability to consider the individual facts of a case and to craft an appropriate punishment. 

  • According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, 15 states allow prosecutors the discretion to have a youth’s case tried in the adult criminal court, 15 states require juvenile court judges to automatically transfer a youth’s case to adult criminal court for certain offenses or because of the age or prior record of the offender, and 29 states automatically require a youth’s case to be tried in the adult court based on the age of the youth or the alleged crime or both.[16] 
  • In 29 states, once a young person is convicted of a particular crime in the adult system, he or she must receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.[17]  Regardless of circumstances—be it mental health status, history of trauma, or amenability to treatment—neither a judge nor a jury has discretion to consider a less extreme sentence.  This is especially egregious in the case of youth sentenced to life without parole, given their capacity for change and growth, but mandatory minimums are both prevalent and problematic throughout the criminal justice system. 

Inadequate Assistance of Counsel

Access to effective counsel can determine whether defendants receive the most severe of punishments: life without parole and the death penalty.[18]  While some excellent attorneys work on these cases, other defendants receive inadequate representation.  In the case of youth in the criminal justice system, inadequate counsel can result in transfer to the adult system and the possibility of life without parole:

  • Court-appointed attorneys in Virginia assigned to provide legal counsel to youth facing transfer to the adult court are not required to have any criminal defense training or expertise and receive minimal payment.[19]
  • A study of youth sentenced to life without possibility of parole in Washington State found that in 7 out of the 28 cases in the state (25%), counsel have been either disbarred, censured, reprimanded and/or suspended from the practice of law.[20]  In one case, the defense counsel failed to have a mental health evaluation done, did not call a single witness at the adult transfer hearing, spent no more than five hours with the client between the transfer to adult court and the trial, spent only two hours interviewing witnesses, and called no experts at trial.[21]


Sentencing youth to life in prison without hope for ever being released is an extreme and unjust practice that grossly undermines the values of our justice system.  This irrevocable sentence sheds light on, and is frequently the result of, many broken pieces in our justice system that impact hundreds of thousands Americans.  In order to uphold our shared values of rehabilitation, redemption, and fairness, these deeply rooted problems demand reform. 

[1] Human Rights Watch, The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Youth Offenders in

the United States in 2008 2 (2008),

[2] Elizabeth Cauffman & Laurence Steinberg, (Im)Maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults, 18 Behav. Sci. & L. 741,742 (2000).

[3] E.g., Nitin Gogtay et al., Dynamic Mapping of Human Cortical Development During Childhood Through Early Adulthood, 101 Proceedings Nat’l Acad. Sci. 8174, 8177 (2004); see also Amicus Brief of the American Medical Society et. al., Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 1255 S.Ct. 1183 (2005) at 10, available at

[4] Campaign for Youth Justice, The Consequences Aren’t Minor: The Impact of Trying Youth as Adults and Strategies for Reform 15 (2007),


[6] Jennifer L. Woolard et al., Juveniles within Adult Correctional Settings: Legal Pathways and Developmental Considerations, 4 International Journal of Forensic Mental Health 1, 3 n.1 (2005).

[7] Campaign for Youth Justice, supra note 5, at 13.

[8] Id. at 7.

[9] Id. at 8.


[11] The Rest of Their Lives, supra note 1, at 5.

[12] David B. Mustard, Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Disparities in Sentencing: Evidence From the U.S. Federal Courts, 44 J. Law & Econ. 285, 296 (2001). Even when controlling for offense type and level, criminal history, and the geographic location of offenses, African Americans still receive sentences 12% longer than whites. Id. at 300.

[13] Kaiser Family Found., Distribution of the U.S. Population by Race/Ethnicity, 2007,

[14] Ashley Nellis & Ryan S. King, The Sentencing Project, No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America 23 tbl.9 (2009),

[15] Id. at 13.



[17] Human Rights Watch, supra note 1, at 3.

[18] Capital cases between 1978 and 1995 had an astounding 68% reversal rate on appeal, due in large part to inadequate representation.  Examples of inadequate counsel include Tennessee, where counsel offered no mitigating evidence in 25% of cases, and Philadelphia, where 60% of capital cases suffered from either lack of proper investigation and/or an experienced attorney. James S. Liebman, et al., A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995 (2000), available at

[19] Am. Bar Ass’n, et al., Virginia: An Assessment of Access to Counsel and Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings 19, 29 (2002), available at

[20] Wash. Coalition for the Just Treatment of Youth, A Reexamination of Youth Involvement in the Adult Criminal Justice System in Washington (2009), available at

[21] Id.