According to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), entitled “False Hope: How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences,” thousands of men and women are serving life sentences for crimes they committed under 18 and could be offered parole or shortened sentences—but are never given the option.
According to figures obtained by the ACLU, in 12 states alone, over 8,300 juvenile offenders are serving sentences of parolable life or at least 40 years for offenses committed when they were under age 18.
As part of its report, the ACLU conducted interviews with 124 prisoners who committed serious crimes when they were between the ages of 12 and 26. The individuals selected were from Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah.
Although each state has different methods for dealing with inmate parole consideration, overall the ACLU found that parole boards focus solely on the crime the person committed as a youth and ultimately overlook who they have become at the time of review. In many cases, after spending years behind bars and undergoing rehabilitation, these prisoners have matured to the point where they are no longer a threat to society.
The report’s author, Sarah Mehta, an ACLU human rights researcher, says her findings show that U.S. Supreme Court rulings aimed at lessening the severity of punishment for young people have not translated into relief from a “parole system that is stacked against them.”
The reports points out parole boards spend more emphasis on the crimes committed than on factors like the degree to which a person has changed or taken responsibility for a crime committed as a juvenile.
As a result even “model prisoners” spend unnecessary decades behind bars, the report says.
Focusing on the parole boards’ reviewing process, the report noted that hearings scheduled to review a prisoner’s history and development can last as little as “five to ten minutes,” and added that inmates are often unaware of what is being considered or how a conclusion is made.
“In at least 24 states, the parole board does not need to explain what information it relied upon to reach its decisions,” report said.
By the time such prisoners are released, they are often too old for full integration into civil society.
“Releasing these prisoners as old men and women is not only unnecessary to protect public safety but also means that these individuals have little hope of finding work—to support themselves and the families that have stood by them—once released,” the report said. ”
It means releasing people to die but not to rebuild their lives, contribute to their communities, and atone for the harm.”
To read the full ACLU report and its recommendations, please click here.
This summary was prepared by TCR staff intern Shannon Nia Alomar.