More than 440 inmates are spending the rest of their lives in Pennsylvania prisons without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles, says the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The state has more of these inmates serving life without parole, or LWOP, sentences, than any other state and all the other countries in the world combined. More than 2,225 inmates in the U.S. are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, according to a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. 97 percent of them are male, and black youths are 10 times more likely to receive the sentence than whites. Nearly 60 percent were first-time offenders. Most juveniles were sentenced for crimes — primarily murder — committed between 16 and 17.
The total number of “juvenile lifers” is likely much higher; a recent Pennsylvania prison survey by a private group revealed 443 such inmates compared with 332 in the report. There are two main reasons for Pennsylvania’s large population of juvenile offenders. The first is a modification of the state’s juvenile law in 1995, called the “adult time” law, which required juveniles charged with serious crimes to appear initially in adult court. Judges have the discretion to decide whether to transfer the case back to juvenile court.The second is that the state parole board cannot grant parole to anyone with an LWOP sentence. Only the governor can grant clemency. In the past two years, several states have begun reassessing their juvenile sentencing laws. Last year, the Colorado legislature permitted juvenile lifers to be paroled after serving 40 years. Similar efforts in Florida and Louisiana died before reaching a vote.