The United States is the only Western country that still sentences juveniles to life without the possibility of parole (JLWOP) — a sentence which guarantees that an individual will die in prison. The country is now moving at a fast and furious pace to abandon this “harsh and increasingly isolated” practice. Over the course of a little more than a week, in an extraordinary sequence of events, the nation’s direction became even more clear.
First came Iowa. On May 27, by a vote of 4-3, the Iowa Supreme Court determined that sentencing an individual under the age of 18 to life without parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Citing our growing knowledge about adolescent development and the capacity of youths to change, Judge Brent Appel wrote in the majority opinion that it would be too “speculative” for a court to determine a young person’s prospects for rehabilitation before he or she has been given any chance to mature into an adult.
Five days later, in Louisiana, a state with the highest incarceration rate in the world, the Republican-controlled State Senate voted to abolish JLWOP. The bill now returns to the House, which has already passed a similar measure. If it passes there, it will be sent to Governor Bel Edwards, who has stated that he intends to sign it. Louisiana could become the 20th state to acknowledge the inherent unfairness and cruelty of this sentence.
As heartening as these developments are, the most consequential decision came on Friday, June 3, from Philadelphia, where all eyes were focused on District Attorney Seth Williams. Currently, 300 people from Philadelphia, 80% African American, are serving JLWOP, earning the city the title of “Juvenile Lifer Capital of the World.” Most of these individuals were sentenced under the harsh and Draconian reign of former District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Until now, her successor Seth Williams had adopted a similarly hard-line approach to the treatment of juvenile offenders. As recently as last October, when asked about Philadelphia’s high rate of juvenile lifers, Williams stated, “We have to do something to hold people accountable,” adding that capital punishment had been “taken off the table” for juveniles. At that time, he also vigorously opposed retroactive application of Miller vs. Alabama, the 2012 Supreme Court decision declaring mandatory JLWOP sentences unconstitutional.
However, whether through political pressure or a personal change of heart, Williams announced last Friday that his office will now pursue a different approach. (See our reaction to this welcome decision here.) He stated that he will no longer seek JLWOP under any circumstances. Additionally, all 300 individuals from Philadelphia currently serving this sentence will receive new hearings where Williams will seek sentences ranging from 20 to 35 years to life. To be clear, if courts follow the head prosecutor’s recommendation in resentencing hearings, none of the juvenile lifers will be guaranteed release. Instead, it will be up to parole boards to decide the fate of each individual. But the chance at parole represents hope, the hope that the juvenile lifers might one day live as adults outside the walls of prison, something they and their families previously believed they would never see. Williams said, “It’s my goal to give all of these individuals some light at the end of the tunnel…”
“Light at the end of the tunnel” represents a welcome alternative vision to “No Hope,” the 2015 report by the public interest firm Phillips Black documenting the handful of counties that continue to sentence teenagers to life without parole. Lest advocates start their victory dance too soon, however, it’s important to note that not everyone with the power to effect change agrees with the majority view. Intercept recently published an article about the few remaining judges who continue to dole out this sentence regularly. They do so for a variety of reasons: because they think it will increase their election prospects, because they believe that “mitigating” factors such as childhood trauma and abuse make these individuals less likely to rehabilitate themselves, or because doing so has become habitual. One judge explained: “The only thing we know how to do, that we’re really good at, is locking them up.” The article is a sobering reminder that, for opponents of JLWOP, there is one final hurdle ahead: to persuade the Supreme Court to ban this punishment altogether.