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August 16, 2023

Deep dive into stores of juvenile LWOP sentences and their review

The New York Times has this lengthy new feature on extreme sentencing of juvenile offenders, with a focus particularly on happenings in Philadelphia.  I recommend the full article, which is headlined "Sentenced to Life as Boys, They Made Their Case for Release."  Here are some excerpts that highlight some of the data reported within broader story-telling:

Philadelphia lawyer named Bradley Bridge ... began the enormous undertaking of compiling a list of all the prisoners in Pennsylvania who were sentenced to life as minors. No one in the state had ever kept track of this group, who came to be called “juvenile lifers” in the courts and “child lifers” by some of the inmates themselves.

He expected the list to be long. He didn’t expect it to eventually include more than 500 names, nearly one-fifth of the more than 2,800 child lifers in the country. More than 300 of them had come through Philadelphia’s system, making a city with less than 1 percent of the country’s population responsible for more than 10 percent of all children sentenced to life in prison without parole in the United States. No other city compared.  Even more glaring: More than 80 percent of Philadelphia’s child lifers were Black. Nationally, that figure was roughly 60 percent....

In 2008, the Equal Justice Initiative found 73 children who had been given sentences of life without parole when they were 13 and 14 years old.  And all of the people who received those sentences for crimes other than homicide were children of color. “It just said something about the way in which race was a proxy for a presumption of dangerousness, this presumption of irredeemability,”[Bryan] Stevenson said....

The Supreme Court’s rulings in Miller and Montgomery marked an important rethinking of culpability when it comes to children who commit the most serious crimes.  But the practical implications of the rulings were limited: the court hadn’t abolished all life without parole sentences for children — only ones where state laws made the sentences mandatory. And while child lifers now had a chance to make a case for their release, prosecutors could still seek new life sentences.  In other states with high numbers of child lifers, including Michigan and Louisiana, as well as some parts of Pennsylvania, that’s just what they did.

Of the more than 300 child lifers who became eligible for resentencing in Philadelphia in 2016, all but about a dozen have been resentenced, and more than 220 have been released, the majority of them on lifetime parole.  That’s nearly a quarter of the roughly 1,000 total child lifers who have been released across the country.  These numbers make Philadelphia, once an outlier in imprisoning minors for life, now an outlier in letting them go.  By 2020, the city had resentenced more child lifers than Michigan and Louisiana combined. What set the city apart, said Mr. Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, was not just the buy-in from local officials and public defenders, but also the community of child lifers who became their own best argument for release....

Since the Supreme Court decisions, more than half of all states have outlawed life without parole sentences for children altogether, reducing the number of child lifers left in the country to fewer than 600, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a national nonprofit.  Mr. Stevenson’s organization is now working to raise the minimum age at which children can be tried as adults in 11 states, including Pennsylvania, where there is no age floor.  Other states are considering abolishing mandatory life without parole sentences for people under 21.

August 16, 2023 at 01:21 PM | Permalink


By the by, Doug, selective prosecution claim passed motion to dismiss. Check out DC Circuit's opinion in the pro-life demonstrators case . . . . what's your view on punishment for the officials engaged in this horrendous conduct.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 16, 2023 3:26:06 PM

Actually, federalist, the dismissal of the Equal Protection claim in Frederick Douglass Foundation v. DC was affirmed: "We affirm the district court’s dismissal of the Foundation’s equal protection claim because the Foundation has not plausibly alleged invidious discrimination by District officials." As I recall, you have been harping about an EPC claim. Is there something in this case that you read as supporting your EPC assertions?

The First Amendment claims were allowed to proceed, and I certainly would like to see damages resulting from unconstitutional law enforcement behaviors. It seems to me very wrong to apply a criminal law based on the viewpoint of particular speech, and so I hope law enforcement faces serious consequences for unconstitutional behaviors. But that old pesky problem of qualified immunity might still get in the way, and I do not think you answered my prior inquiry: do you share my interest in seeing significant QI reform so that there is more recourse and liability for individuals subject to illegal government behavior?

Posted by: Doug B | Aug 16, 2023 5:10:56 PM

Invidious discrimination isn't the only way one can win on EPC. It looks like the parties didn't care so much about that since 1A so strong. But the problem of selective prosecution isn't going to be cabined to 1A.

In my view, the cops making the arrest belong in jail. But they won't be prosecuted.

I believe that a good first start on QI is what Clarence Thomas has written about time to reflect.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 17, 2023 10:24:17 AM

I wish they would allow child life sentences for intentional homicide. For other crimes, it does become troubling. For children, I can agree that a permanent sentence should be reserved for a crime with permanent results, such as homicide. There may be other cases where it makes sense. But that's the main one.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Aug 17, 2023 6:08:38 PM

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