LWOP Update

I’m a little late to the party but figured it’s not too late to call attention to this long piece by AP reporter Adam Geller on life without parole sentences for juveniles. The article, the second in a series on juvenile justice reform, ran on Saturday (to read, and read about, the first in the series, click here).

Those who follow the issue closely won’t find much new information in Geller’s article; for such a long piece, it is rather short on analysis. But Geller has done a commendable job of putting a human face on the problem. It is one thing to read that 2,381 people in the United States are serving life without parole for crimes committed before they turned 18–or to discover that the United States accounts for more than 99.9 percent of such sentences in the world–but representing those numbers is a different matter. Geller introduces us to a few people who have been sentenced to die in prison for mistakes (admittedly horrible, violent mistakes) they made at a very young age.

Consider the case of Michael Perry, an inmate in a Detroit prison who was convicted in 1991, at age 17, of first-degree murder and sentenced to three concurrent life terms without parole. “When the time came to sentence Michael Perry,” Geller writes, “state law forced a judge to decide between widely disparate options. He could treat Perry as a juvenile and see him released by 21. Or he could send him away forever.” Faced with this stark choice, Judge Leopold Borrello said, “The only conclusion that I can reach is that the law deprives me of doing justice.”

Perhaps not for long, though. Geller doesn’t really get into it, but a two-pronged national campaign is under way to challenge LWOP sentences for juveniles in both the statehouses and the courts. Progressive lawmakers and youth advocates are pushing state governments to ban mandatory sentencing for LWOP cases and to establish clemency boards and parole hearings after, say, twenty years; legislators in Illinois, Michigan and California are currently working on bills to this effect, in an attempt to join a growing cadre of states that have already banned the practice.

On the legal front, a loose coalition of human rights advocates and public defenders are questioning the constitutionality of these sentences in a raft of cases that are currently working their way through the lower courts. Over the weekend, for example, I read this story about five inmates serving life without parole in Kentucky who are challenging a state loophole that abolishes LWOP for juveniles but allows it for young offenders who are tried and convicted as adults. Clearly a case–and an issue–to watch in the weeks ahead.

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