Survey of Teens Serving Life Without Parole Finds Racial Disparities


A survey by the Sentencing Project of 1,579 inmates serving life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as juveniles found “high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage [and] extreme racial disparities in the imposition of these punishments.” The survey said nearly half had experienced physical abuse as youths and 79 percent witnessed violence in their homes. Fewer than half were attending school at the time of their offense, and nearly 85 percent had had been suspended or expelled from school at some point in their academic career. The proportion of African Americans serving life sentences for the killing of a white person is nearly twice the rate at which African American juveniles are arrested for taking a white person's life.

The survey found that about 62 percent of juvenile lifers are not engaged in programming in prison. This is generally not due to their lack of interest, but because of state or prison policies. Among the juvenile lifers who were not participating in programming, 32.7 percent were prohibited because they will never be released; an additional 28.9 percent were in prisons without sufficient programming or had completed all available programming. The survey said that, “Many juvenile lifers are engaged in constructive change during their incarceration when they are permitted the opportunity to do so.”

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