Juveniles Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the Federal System

June 2011

Introduction to the Issue

There are at least 38[1] individuals serving life sentences without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in the federal system for offenses committed when they were younger than 18 years old. Though juveniles have been allowed to be tried and sentenced in the federal system since the 1930s, changes in federal law over time have modified the list of offenses for which a juvenile could be placed in the federal system. Broadly speaking, federal delinquency proceedings are allowed under certain circumstances, including: (1) state courts are unwilling or unable (in the case of American Indian territories) to assume jurisdiction; (2) if the state lacks adequate treatment plans; and (3) if the juvenile is charged with a crime of violence or drug trafficking or smuggling, or there is substantial federal interest in the case.[2]

Today, in a limited but growing number of instances involving drugs or violence, federal law permits the trial of juveniles as adults in federal court.[3] Under 18 USC Sec. 5032(4), individuals 16 and older charged with a violent felony, drug trafficking, drug smuggling, or arson can be transferred to the federal system if they have similar prior offenses. The prior offense may be either a conviction as an adult or a finding of delinquency based on conduct that would be felonious if committed by an adult. Discretionary transfer to federal court is allowable in some cases for those individuals who are at least 13 years old.[4]

Though considered earlier in some case proceedings, at the point of sentencing, one’s young age is generally not considered as a mitigating factor in deciding whether a sentence should be outside the range of sentencing guidelines.

Profile of Federal JLWOP Cases

All of the prisoners serving juvenile life without parole sentences in the federal system are male. The racial disparity is extreme: at least 73.7% are minorities.[5] More than half are black.

Table 1. Race of Offender

Race Number Proportion
White 10 26.3%
Black 21 55.3%
Asian 3 7.9%
American Indian 4 10.5%


Table 2. Ethnicity of Offender

Ethnicity Number Proportion
Hispanic 7 18.4%
Other 31 81.6%


Individuals as young as fifteen have been tried and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the federal system. Most individuals serving JLWOP sentences are now in their thirties, with ages ranging from twenty-three to forty years old. To incarcerate 38 youth from age sixteen until they die, the federal government will spend $67 million.[6]

Table 3. Age at Time of Offense

Age Number Proportion
17 years old 18 47.4%
16 years old 16 42.1%
15 years old 4 10.5%


This fact sheet was prepared by Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project & Jody Kent Lavy, Director & National Coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

[1] Data from letter dated April 22, 2010, from Alecia S. Sillah for Wanda M. Hunt, Chief, FOIA/PA Section, Federal Bureau of Prisons, to Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

[2] Smith, A. M. (2009). Juvenile Justice: Life without Parole Sentences. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service.

[3] Doyle, C. (2004). Juvenile Delinquents and Federal Criminal Law: The Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act and Related Matters. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service.

[4] Before discretionary transfer can take place, the following factors must be considered: age, nature of the offense, juvenile’s present intellectual development and maturity, nature of past treatment efforts, and the juvenile’s response to such efforts; and the availability of rehabilitative programming.

[5] Since BOP data separated ethnicity from race, a full portrait of racial disparity is impossible.

[6] Based on an average cost of incarceration of $28,284.16/year, http://www.uscourts.gov/News/NewsView/11-06-23/Newly_Available_Costs_of_Incarceration_and_Supervision_in_FY_2010.aspx (accessed June 28, 2011) and an average US life expectancy, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN/countries/US?display=graph (accessed May 9, 2011).