The Problem with Juveniles Getting Life Without Parole

By Danielle A. – Criminal Justice Intern

While juveniles being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole may seem uncommon, it’s not. There are currently people in prison who have been sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes they committed before the age of 18. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole. Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have banned life without parole for people under 18. An additional nine states allow it but don’t currently have any juveniles sentenced to life without parole. While its great juveniles can’t be sentenced to the death penalty, life in prison without the possibly of parole isn’t much better. This is why life sentences for anyone under the age of 18 needs to be banned altogether.

We were all young once before so we know what it’s like to make irrational decisions. Some make decisions that are worse than others. Researchers say a brain isn’t fully developed till the age of 25.  They also mentioned juveniles tend to use the part of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions and solve problems. The amygdala is associated with emotions, impulse, aggression and instinctive behavior. So image how underdeveloped a brain may be for a 16 year old who has committed a murder.

Minors LWOP 2Childhood trauma also plays a very big role when discussing juveniles being sentenced to life without parole. They have often been victims of abuse and didn’t have the best up bringing. Research shows 79% witnessed violence in their homes on a regular basic and 47% were physically abused. Almost half of the juveniles had dropped out of school at the time they committed their crimes. How is locking someone up and throwing away the key going to help anyone?

We all know prison is expensive for adults but imagine the cost of  incarcerating a juvenile for life. The average cost to house a prisoner is about $33,000 a year. The average life span of a person in America is 79. If someone is sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16, that would cost $2,079,000 over a 63 year time span. And let’s not to forget to mention that the cost of housing a prisoner doubles once a person turns 50.

This isn’t about juveniles not being held accountable for their actions, but rather their lives shouldn’t end by being sentenced to life in prison. Organizations like The Sentencing Project support a mandatory sentence of 20 years for juveniles convicted of crimes. As of 2016, there are 7,346 people who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole for crimes that were committed before the age of 18. While it sounds great that there may be a chance that the juvenile will be released as an adult, it’s not that easy. Some states have a minimum of 25 years to be served before the first parole hearing, while other states like Tennessee have a minimum of 51 years.

Every action has a reaction but what comes after that? Yes, prison is the reaction but that can’t be the end of it.  Some say the rising violence in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s is to blame for today’s life sentences for juveniles but that was almost 30 years ago. The murder rate committed by juveniles has decreased a whopping 82% since then. There is no need to make an “example” out of someone by sentencing them to life in prison. Let’s do away with harsh punishment and address the issues that cause juveniles to commit these crimes in the first place.