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June 7, 2023

New Sentencing Project report reviews "Adults 25 and Younger Sentenced to Life without Parole"

The Sentencing Project today released this new report on certain LWOP sentencing patterns titled "“Left to Die in Prison: Emerging Adults 25 and Younger Sentenced to Life without Parole.” Here are excerpts from the report's "Executive Summary" (with endnotes removed):

Beginning at age 18, U.S. laws typically require persons charged with a crime to have their case heard in criminal rather than juvenile court, where penalties are more severe.  The justification for this is that people are essentially adults by age 18, yet this conceptualization of adulthood is flawed.  The identification of full criminal accountability at age 18 ignores the important, distinct phase of human development referred to as emerging adulthood, also known as late adolescence or young adulthood.  Compelling evidence shows that most adolescents are not fully matured into adulthood until their mid-twenties.

The legal demarcation of 18 as adulthood rests on outdated notions of adolescence.  Based on the best scientific understanding of human development, ages 18 to 25 mark a unique stage of life between childhood and adulthood which is recognized within the fields of neuroscience, sociology, and psychology.  Thus, there is growing support for providing incarcerated people who were young at the time of their offense a second look at their original sentence to account for their diminished capacity.  A 2022 study found similar levels of public support for providing a second look at prison sentences for crimes committed under age 18 as for those committed under age 25.... 

Two in five people — 11,600 individuals — sentenced to LWOP between 1995 and 2017 were under 26 at the time of their sentence.  In Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California, nearly half of those sentenced to LWOP were younger than 26.  Nationally, the peak age at conviction was age 23, which is well within the period between youth and adulthood.

Moreover, two thirds (66%) of people under 26 years old sentenced to LWOP are Black compared with 51% of persons sentenced to LWOP beyond this age. As we show in this report, our analysis finds that being Black and young has produced a substantially larger share of LWOP sentences than being Black alone. This fact reinforces the growing understanding that extreme sentences disproportionately impact Black Americans.

The report’s findings support a recent sentencing trend recognizing emerging adulthood as a developmental stage; more than a dozen states have introduced or passed legislative reforms or adopted jurisprudential restrictions in recent years to protect emerging adults from extreme punishment.  These reforms utilize the latest scientific understanding of adolescence and young adulthood to recognize emerging adulthood as a necessary consideration in assigning culpability. 

In light of strong evidence showing the unique attributes of emerging adulthood, sentences that allow no review once adolescent development is concluded are especially egregious.

June 7, 2023 at 02:58 PM | Permalink


I knew not to kill when I was old enough to know what death was. It’s a simple concept.

Just more nonsense to chop away at the premise that people are responsible for their own actions.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jun 7, 2023 6:55:55 PM

Jurisdictions have adopted LWOP as the most severe punishment instead of the death penalty. I predict that more organizations and elected officials will propose limiting the types of offenses punishable by LWOP. In Georgia, a person must receive an LWOP sentence upon a second conviction for armed robbery. I argue that murder is the only offense punishable by life and only LWOP based on aggravated factors. A 21 year old is still impulsive and there's no justification to sentence him to LWOP unless he committed a particularly heinous murder or murders.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 8, 2023 12:22:33 AM

@Tarls: It is not just killing. The vast majority of people never commit any crime at all. The argument is about how to deal with those who do.

The law has always recognized a lower level of culpability for younger people. Exactly when does that protection go away? Well, that has changed over time and varies based on jurisdiction. It's a reasonable thing to wonder about.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jun 9, 2023 7:45:55 AM

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