Al Jazeera America looks into the crimes and punishment of some of the country’s prison lifers who were sentenced as juveniles. Nationwide, there are at least 1,200 people serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed when they were children, though some say the number could be as high as 2,500. In addition, thousands more teenagers have been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, or to de facto life sentences of 60 years or more. The U.S. is the only country in the world where kids are sentenced to die in prison.
A common perception is that these kids are “the worst of the worst,” and many juveniles sentenced to life have done terrible things. But Human Rights Watch estimates that a quarter of them were convicted of “aiding and abetting” or of felony murders. Almost 60 percent had no prior criminal convictions. More than 70 juveniles were just 13 or 14 years old at the time of their crime. Many had been subjected to abuse and neglect, their childhoods marred by instability, poverty and violent or criminal behavior by the adults in their life. “Almost all of these kids have been failed in a deep, deep way,” says one legal advocate.