States Abandoning Juvenile Life Without Parole at a Rapid Pace



Since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated mandatory life without parole for juveniles (JLWOP) in 2012, nine states have abolished it, with six states abolishing it within the past year.


In actual practice, the imposition of JLWOP has dropped dramatically since the mid-1990s and is increasingly isolated to outlier counties and states, according to recently released data from the Phillips Black Project.


The Phillips Black Project report, “No Hope: Re-Examining Lifetime Sentences for Juvenile Offenders,” and infographics are available online at


Only a few states and a handful of counties impose JLWOP sentences. Just nine states – California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania – account for 82 percent of all JLWOP sentences.


In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment.


On Oct. 13, the court will hold oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana, in which it will decide whether to apply the ban on mandatory JLWOP retroactively, i.e., on offenders whose appeals were completed when Miller was decided.


A number of advocates, including Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, have urged the Court to rule that JLWOP is unconstitutional in all cases.


Walter Riley, Oakland civil rights lawyer, also believes the Supreme Court should decide that the 2012 decision applies retroactively and would change many of California’s juvenile sentences.


“We understand scientifically that juveniles and teens are still developing in their brains and that their judgment and sense of morality are not better defined until their 20s,” said Riley. “Their judgments in this period should not be something that disables them for the rest of their lives.”


“Hopefully, California moving forward will see an appreciation for the role that society has to play in guiding young people rather than punishing and alienating them from the rest of society,” he said.


From 1992 to 1999, 45 states passed laws expanding adult court jurisdiction over juveniles, exposing additional young offenders to life without parole sentences.


Legislatures were sparked by the now-discredited theory that a generation of super-predators was on the horizon. The super-predators never arrived, but many individuals are still languishing under sentences premised on the super-predator myth.


The Phillips Black Project data shows that in the three years since the Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama, nine states – Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming and Vermont – have abolished JLWOP, bringing the current number of states that completely outlaw the sentence to 15.


Five counties account for more than one-fifth of all JLWOP sentences. Those counties are Philadelphia County, PA; Los Angeles County, CA; Orleans Parish, LA; Cook County, IL; and St. Louis City, MO. A single county – Philadelphia, PA – accounts for almost 10 percent of all JLWOP sentences nationwide.


Since 1992, a Black juvenile arrested for homicide has been twice as likely to be sentenced to life without parole than his white counterpart. Texas only has persons of color serving JLWOP sentences. Eighty percent of the people serving JLWOP in Pennsylvania are people of color.


The pace of abolition of JLWOP – a rate of three per year since 2012 – is faster than the rate at which states were repealing the death penalty for juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities in the years before the Court invalidated those punishments.


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