There are more than 2,500 people in the United States serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed under the age of eighteen. In the spring of 2010, the United States Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of imposing such sentences on a subset of these juvenile offenders who were convicted of non-homicide crimes. This constitutional challenge was brought before the court in two cases,
This Issue Brief begins by explaining why the practice of sentencing youth to life in prison without the possibility of parole is deeply flawed public policy. First, we address the long-recognized principle that youth are different from adults, reinforced in recent years by adolescent development brain science, as well as by examples of youth who were successfully rehabilitated. Second, we critique the frequently argued notion that harsh sentencing is necessary to protect public safety, a premise undermined by both the inconsistent and arbitrary application and by the resulting diversion of taxpayer dollars that could be used to increase public safety through prevention programs. Third, we discuss how the sentencing of youth to life in prison without the possibility of parole undermines America’s moral standing in the world, as the only nation in the world that imposes this irrevocable sentence on people under the age of eighteen.
We conclude the Issue Brief with a suggested alternative to the practice of sentencing youth to life in prison without the possibility of parole which balances the need to hold youth who commit serious crimes accountable, while still recognizing their inherent capacity for change. We recommend the creation of a system that would allow for meaningful periodic review of sentences given to youth convicted of serious offenses to determine whether they continue to pose a threat to society or may be able to return to our communities as productive citizens. This is a common sense solution to an irrational and grossly misguided policy.