Is Life Without Parole A Fair Sentence For Juveniles?

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Is life without parole a fair sentence for juveniles?

Is life without parole a fair sentence for juveniles?


The term “life without parole,” sometimes called “LWOP” or “natural life,” refers to a sentence of confinement in state or federal prison that lasts for the duration of an offender's life. A sentence of life without parole is generally given in instances of particularly serious crimes or in cases where the offender has a history of serious criminal activity. As opposed to other possible criminal sanctions, the primary goal of a sentence of life without parole is complete incapacitation.


While the concept of life without parole suggests that the offender will spend the rest of his or her life in prison, each jurisdiction implements this sentence in different ways (see Table 1). In some places, “life without parole” means that a certain number of years, as few as 10 years in Idaho and Montana or as many as 55 years in Indiana, must be served before the offender can be eligible for parole. In Oklahoma, those sentenced to life without parole are, in fact, eligible for parole after serving 45 years. In response, in 1994, an Oklahoma judge sentenced a convicted child molester with 14 prior felony convictions to six consecutive 5,000-year sentences in an effort to ensure that he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Elsewhere, the term “life without parole” literally means that the individual will never be eligible for parole; he or she will die in prison. In some states (e.g., South Carolina and Vermont), the governor can commute a sentence of life without parole, while elsewhere (e.g., Alabama) the governor is prohibited from such action. In some jurisdictions, “life without parole” is the default sentence in capital cases where a guilty verdict is reached but the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision as to a sentence of death (see Table 1).


The vast majority of inmates serving life without parole are male (about 95%). However, in recent years, partly as a response to the so-called war on drugs and to ”three strikes” laws that have been enacted at state and federal levels, the proportion of female inmates has been increasing. Overall, as with the general prison population, disproportionate numbers of men and women of color are serving this lengthy prison term.

Approximately 1.2% of all prisoners are doing life without parole, and it is thought that this proportion will grow substantially over the next two decades. For example, a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis projects that by the year 2026, there will be approximately 30,000 persons serving sentences of 25 years to life in the state of California alone. Furthermore, about 83% of these (24,900 inmates in California) will be 40 years of age or older. Other estimates hold that as a result of sentencing changes in the 1980s and 1990s, over 10% of the prison population nationally will be over the age of 50 in coming ...
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