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Arguing Against a Life Without the Possibility of Parole for Youth

The March 2010, the American Constitution Society (ACS) released, "A Just Alternative to Sentencing Youth to Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole" that provides three arguments against utilizing life without the possibility of parole for youth. The issue brief also recommends state policy reform options.

Youth are different from adults.  The Court recognizes that youth differ from adults biologically and should be treated as such.  Scientists suggest that youth differ from adults in the areas of impulse control, ability to access risks, and judgment.  Since youth's brains are not fully developed, the likelihood of rehabilitation is increased when compared to their adult counterparts.  If youth are given life sentences without the possibility of parole, they are not afforded opportunity to be rehabilitated.

According to the ACS, life sentencing practices are "applied inconsistently and arbitrarily"; therefore, are not necessary for public safety.   Of the youth serving a life without the possibility of parole sentence, 60% are first time offenders.  This percentage reflects the mandatory minimum sentences when youth are transferred to adult court.  In California and four other states, states "imprison two-thirds of all individuals serving life without parole for crimes committed in their youth". 

Ethnicity is a factor when analyzing the youth population serving life sentences.  Of the youth serving life without the possibility of parole 60% are African American compared to 29% of white youth. Nationally the disparity between African American and white youth is 10:1.  In some states (including California), the disparity rises between 18:1 and 48:1.

Sentencing youth to life without the possibility of parole undermines the United States morals. According to the ACS "International human rights law prohibits life without parole for those who commit their crimes before the age of eighteen".  The United States signed three international treaties where sentencing youth to life without the possibility of parole is a violation.

The ACS recommends a periodic review of youth sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The periodic review consists of reviewing youth's sentences who were already convicted to decide if these youth are a public safety risk. The ACS proposes that after youth spend ten years or more in the justice system, any youth that "demonstrated remorse and a record of rehabilitation would be granted a reduction in sentence".  The ACS proposes this modest reform based on the three arguments presented above.

The ACS provides three clear and concise arguments for abolishing the sentencing practices of life without the possibility of parole for youth. California and other states need to reexamine alternatives because many of these youth have the potential for rehabilitation and to become productive members of their community.

~Tamra Otten, CJCJ staff

Keywords: LWOP, youth

Posted in Blog, Sentencing

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