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Why Juvenile LWOP Sentences Are A Mistake


January 18, 2012

A legal view: Why juvenile life without parole sentences are a mistake


“All they want is a second chance”- Steven Watt, Senior Staff Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program

Bobby’s Story
Bobby Hines was 15 when he, 19-year-old Christopher Young and 16-year-old Darius Woolfolk went to confront James Warner. Warner was accused of having stolen a jacket from a local boy as payment for drugs. When the trio came upon Warner, 16-year-old Woolfolk shot and killed him. Hines had neither touched the weapon, nor the victim, yet he was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to serve “the rest of [his] natural life to hard labor and solitary confinement.” He had just finished his eighth grade.(1)

Bobby’s co-defendants, Young, who provided the weapon, and Woolfolk, who fatally shot Warner, were convicted of second-degree murder and are serving paroleable life sentences. These sentences and Hines’ sentence are vastly different. Why the discrepancy?

By definition, second degree murder is “a non-premeditated killing, resulting from an assault in which death of the victim was a distinct possibility.”(2) Felony murder is “any death which occurs during the commission of a felony is first degree murder, and all participants in that felony or attempted felony can be charged with and found guilty of murder,”(3) (emphasis added) even if the death is accidental, and encompasses the crime of “aiding and abetting” if it results in a death. In Michigan, where this crime took place, the current sentencing laws force an automatic life-without-parole sentence for juveniles who are convicted of felony murder, even if, like Hines, they were only an accessory to the crime. Though in reality the physical murder that Woolfolk and Young were convicted of is a more serious offense, in practice, the felony murder conviction is a more serious sentence for juveniles.

At the time of the offense, Bobby had average grades and regular attendance. Today, Bobby is assigned to the lowest custody level available for his sentence. He has now served twenty-one years in prison on a non-paroleable life sentence, and will, according to the terms of his confinement, die in prison.(4)

Bobby’s story is not unique. Countless children have been sentenced to life in prison without parole (JLWOP) for crimes that are often less than murder. Many are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hines’ case sharply frames the issue of whether it is ever appropriate, both from a constitutional perspective or as reasonable public policy, to mete out a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole to a person who is 18 years or younger. Even when a child commits murder, it is erroneous to hold them to the same level of accountability as adults, without any opportunity to prove that they have changed for the better.

Imprisonment, International Norms and the Constitution
Why do we imprison people? According to the Justice Kennedy Commission convened by the American Bar Association in 2003 to examine the purposes of incarceration and the vast differences in sentencing in the U.S., the goals of incarceration are rehabilitation, deterrence, punishment and protection.(5) However, by retaining JLWOP sentences the justice system openly casts aside the rehabilitative goal for children (those most likely to be truly changed) by nixing the possibility of eventually reincorporating a juvenile offender back into society.

According to a Human Rights Watch report done in 2005, life without parole (LWOP) is an acceptable sentence for various crimes committed by juveniles in 42 states of the U.S.(6) As of May 2009 there were still approximately 2,600 juveniles in the U.S. Serving LWOP sentences.(7) Nowhere else in the world are youth sentenced to such a term.(8)

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically prohibits incarcerating children for life,(9) and the United States and Somalia are the only countries in the world that have yet to ratify it.(10) The U.S. Was also the sole country to vote against a 2006 UN resolution that called for the abolition of the life without parole sentence for children and young teenagers.(11) Though a small number of countries have laws that could theoretically imprison a juvenile for life, the U.S. Remains the only country with juveniles serving this type of sentence out.(12) This makes the U.S. The only violator of international human rights standards that ban incarcerating children for life.

By allowing juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole, the United States is also, arguably, violating its Constitution. It can be reasonably argued that the sentence is “cruel and unusual punishment” and violates the 8th Amendment of our Constitution. While the average person would consider any prison sentence joyless and severe, both the young age at which a minor is sentenced (which means more time in prison than adult lifers) and the undeveloped nature of a minor’s brain elevate the punishment to a unique level of cruelty.

Unfair Sentencing
For the same reasons that juveniles should be considered less culpable for crimes committed, it should be recognized that the very point of sentencing as a means of deterrence is negated. A juvenile can’t fully comprehend the weight of a lengthy prison sentence, and the possibility of a harsh sentence will not be deterrent to them due to their inability to perceive the consequences of the sentence itself on their life.

Not only are young offenders less mature and physically able to make informed, calculated decisions, many of them are grappling with a host of other issues prior to committing their crime. For example, “delinquent youths have higher rates of mental and psychological disabilities such as mental retardation, attention deficit disorder (ADD), depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” In addition, young offenders are much more likely to have been physically or sexually abused than children in the general, non-prison population. Youth who have consistently come under the negative power of adults are more easily manipulated. A sizeable number of juvenile lifers had adult co-defendants who oftentimes exerted their influence on impressionable youngsters and used them to commit a crime. Furthermore, due to unjust sentencing laws these adults often receive lighter sentences than their juvenile codefendants.

In addition, juvenile LWOP sentences are objectively harsher than adults’: if you are sentenced to life in jail without parole when you are 14 your sentence will be longer than someone sentenced to life at age 36. Juveniles will have also been sentenced in their most formative years, when they would “otherwise finish their education, form relationships, start families, gain employment, and through those experiences learn to become adults.”(13)

Moreover, there is a gaping racial disparity among minors sentenced to LWOP. 85% of youth sentenced to LWOP in California, for example, are people of color, with African Americans serving LWOP at a rate 18 times higher and Hispanic youth serving at a rate 5 times higher than the rate of white youth.(14) In no way can these numbers be considered just or equitable.

Progress and Reasoning
Progress has already been made in increasing equitable sentencing in the U.S. The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Graham v Florida, 982 So. 2d 43 (2010) declared that sentencing juveniles to LWOP was unconstitutional in non-homicide cases (crimes like burglary and armed robbery where no murder is involved) because the punishment was “cruel and unusual” and “inconsistent with basic principles of decency”. The same rationale justifying this decision applies to the JLWOP sentence.

The death penalty has been outlawed as a sentence for children since 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) that it was unconstitutional. The Court cited “evolving standards of decency” and the growing body of evidence that suggests that juveniles are inherently unable to be considered “among the worst offenders” due to an underdeveloped frontal lobe and limited capacity for mature decision making.

Cognitive capacity was also taken into account in 2002, when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Atkins v Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on mentally retarded individuals. While no one is arguing that people under 18 are mentally retarded, the Supreme Court has indicated that it deems mental development a crucial consideration when determining whether or not to impose the harshest sentences on an individual.(15) Indeed, there is a consensus among neuroscientists that brain regions and systems responsible for foresight, self-regulation, risk assessment and responsiveness to social influences are not fully developed in minors. This is a key point to be made, as these scientific findings and court decisions suggest that the logic for imprisoning a minor for life is similarly flawed.

Aside from the humanitarian perspective, why should the nation take interest in this issue? There are many potential positive benefits of rehabilitation: more tax-paying individuals, a more educated populace (which based on current statistics would seem to correlate with a lower overall crime rate), and reconstruction of broken families. Additionally, at a time when states are struggling more than ever to balance budgets and manage overflowing prison populations, successful rehabilitation and release from prison of minors currently being held for life would be a welcome relief of monetary burden for faltering detention centers.

National Consensus and Activism
When determining whether or not there is a place for a law or sentence in our justice system and legislative body, it is crucial to consider public opinion. Is there a national consensus against JLWOP? In most states, there are few to zero inmates serving out JLWOP sentences. In fact, in 2002 a trial judge in Illinois refused to impose the mandatory LWOP sentence, ruling it disproportionate to the crime, unconstitutional, and against international law.(16) The case, called People v. Miller, involved a 15-year-old lookout, and the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the ruling. This and numerical statistics point to a national consensus against juvenile Life Without Parole.

Anti-JLWOP activists are working to drum up grassroots opposition to sentences of LWOP and other disproportionate punishment of persons 16 years and younger. As Steven Watt, the ACLU’s senior attorney for the Human Rights Program and counsel in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the State of Michigan says, “if there isn’t a public discourse on the issue and a case is litigated in isolation then you can get decisions like [the Allen case] in Connecticut, where the judge ruled on appeal that it was ultimately a “public policy determination reserved to the legislative branch of government.” It begs for … an awareness-raising at all levels of society. That’s the way to litigate a case effectively, to have a groundswell of opinion in support of the case.”(17) The case, made by Anthony Allen against the State of Connecticut, appealed the JLWOP sentence mandated by the court because Allen was convicted of a capital felony as a minor.

With age comes a maturing of impulsive behavior. Accordingly, rates for homicide and other violent crimes are highest among 18 to 24 year-olds and decrease markedly after this point—an age at which individuals have more emotional tools at hand to deal with conflict. A criminal justice system will be imminently more just when JLWOP laws are amended to include the possibility of a ‘meaningful opportunity for parole’ for juveniles, at a time when their judgment and behavior have substantially matured, thus rendering them less of a threat to society. This approach seems to model a criminal justice system and its “evolving standards of decency,” as the United States Supreme Court has stated.

For our justice system to move one step closer to being a truly equitable and fair one, we must recognize children for what they are: beings who, though, intelligent, have not yet attained emotional and mental maturity and thus possess a large capacity (more than adults) to fundamentally change.

To cast a 15 year old away to die in prison is to submit to the idea that we as a society are unable to apply the judgment, maturity and justice to these children that we unforgivingly expect of them.


1 Diane Bukowski. “The Rest of Their Lives: Death in Prison for Child Offenders.” The Michigan Citizen. (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
2 The Free Dictionary. “Second degree murder.” (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
3 Legal Dictionary. “felony murder doctrine.” (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
4 “The Rest of Their Lives: Death in Prison for Child Offenders.” 
5 “Report of the ABA Justice Kennedy Commission.” (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
6 Amnesty International. “The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States.” Oct 11, 2005. (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
7 PBS Frontline. “When Kids Get Life.” May 8, 2007. (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
8 American Civil Liberties Union. “ACLU Lawsuit Challenges Life Without Parole for Michigan Juveniles” (accessedSep 15, 2011)
9 United Nations. “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
10 LaBelle, Deborah, Anna Phillips, and Laural Horton. American Civil Liberties Union. Second Chances. Detroit: ACLU of Michigan, 2004, p.21. (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
11 Agyepong, Tera. “Children Left Behind Bars: Sullivan, Graham, and Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences.” Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights 9.1 (2010): 83-102.
12 Atkins v. Virginia 536 U.S. 304 (2002)
13 Second Chances. p.18
14 “Juvenile Justice in California Fact Sheet” (accessed Sep 15, 2011)
15 Atkins v. Virginia 536 U.S. 304 (2002)
16 Illinois v. Miller, 202 Ill. 2d 328, 781 N.E. 2d 300 (Ill. 2002)
17 Steven Watt, American Civil Liberties Union. Senior staff attorney Human Rights Program. Personal interview

*Special thanks to Steven Watt of the ACLU for the informative and thoughtful personal interview.


The post above is reprinted with permission from the Yale Undergraduate Law Review.


Katherine Aragon was born and raised in San Diego, California, and is a Political Science major at Yale University with a prospective concentration in International Studies. Her passions include human rights, minority protections, ethnicity, race & migration, and conflict resolution. At Yale, Katherine is a co-founder of The Myanmar Project, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of and services for Burmese refugees both domestically and abroad. She is also the Secretary of MEChA de Yale, and a contributing writer for the Yale Undergraduate Law Review. She has worked with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as an intern.


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