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States slow to change on life without parole for children

More than 2,500 people are in prison for life for crimes committed before they turned 18.
A prisoner at Pelican Pay Prison in Crescent City, Calif.  in 2012.
A prisoner at Pelican Pay Prison in Crescent City, Calif. in 2012.

The 2012 Supreme Court ruling that was supposed to spell the end of mandatory life sentences without parole for children hasn’t led to a sea change in the criminal justice system, a new analysis from the Sentencing Project has found.  

Only a handful of states have passed laws to comply with the 2012 decision, which found that mandatory life sentences for individuals under the age of 18 without the chance for parole violates the Eighth Amendment. The decision also said that juries must be able to consider mitigating factors when deciding sentences because children have not finished developing physically and mentally and could be rehabilitated.

Thirteen of the 28 states that had mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles now ban the practice. Things are slowly improving, but many tough-on-crime states still leave children facing long prison terms.

Some states have simply replaced mandatory life without parole with mandatory minimum sentences of several decades. And, the Sentencing Project's analysis found that most states will allow life without parole to be imposed, as long as it is not required.

It’s not just young men and women who have been sentenced to prison terms since 2012 who aren’t feeling any relief from the ruling. Of the 2,500 people in prison for crimes committed before they turned 18, some 2,000 men and women currently serving mandatory life without parole could be given new sentences. But only four states that have passed new laws voted to allow re-sentencing.

And while the Supreme Court has ruled on cases from some states, inmates in some states may not be able to get a new sentence. Only three states, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Florida account for 40% of all the juveniles sentenced to remain in prison till they die, and those states still plan on imposing sentences longer than 25 years on children convicted of homicide. Pennsylvania has more than 450 serving mandatory life sentences.

This means more men and women will join another group of inmates serving time that may be eligible for clemency under new Justice Department rules. Thousands of prisoners who were sentenced under harsh anti-drug laws could be eligible for clemency, under new criteria announced in April by the Obama administration. At the time, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said of long drug-related sentences, “Older, stringent punishments that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system.”

While the inmates applying for clemency are specifically non-violent, and mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were only allowed in homicide cases when the Supreme Court ruled in 2012, there are still thousands of people in prison who would receive different sentences if they saw a trial today.

The U.S. is the only nation in the world that sentences children to life without parole for crimes.