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Home Archive Volume 65 Volume 65, Issue 3 Juvenile Life Without Parole in Law and Practice: Chronicling the Rapid Change Underway
Juvenile Life Without Parole in Law and Practice: Chronicling the Rapid Change Underway

By John R. Mills, Anna M. Dorn, and Amelia Courtney Hritz | 65 Am. U. L. Rev. 535 (2016) 

This Article provides a comprehensive examination of juvenile life without parole (“JLWOP”) both as a policy and in practice.  Beginning in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution restricts the reach of JLWOP sentences, first prohibiting it for non-homicide offenses, then proscribing its mandatory application for any offense, and, in 2016, clarifying that it may only be imposed in the rare instance in which a juvenile’s homicide demonstrates his or her “irreparable corruption.”  The legislative responses to these cases have been to either abandon or restrict JLWOP’s application.  These legislative changes undo aspects of the rapid expansion of harsh juvenile sentencing policies enacted across the country starting in the early-1990s and represent a trend away from using JLWOP sentences.

By analyzing JLWOP sentencing data from state departments of corrections, this Article includes three significant findings.  First, among juveniles arrested for homicide, African American youth receive JLWOP sentences twice as often as their white counterparts.  Second, a small number of counties are responsible for all JLWOP sentences nationally and in large disproportion to their population.  Third, JLWOP sentencing dramatically increased during the same time period that states were enacting harsh juvenile sentencing laws—laws that are now falling out of favor.  The Article offers potential reasons for these observations, but further study is required to fully explain the disparities in JLWOP sentencing practices.  Such study is warranted because each observation raises substantial questions about the wisdom and constitutionality of JLWOP sentences, given the U.S. Supreme Court’s increased interest in restricting its application.

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