The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Sentencing Juveniles to Life without the Opportunity for Parole

Sunday, January 20, 2013: 9:15 AM
Nautilus 5 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Jeffrey Shook, PhD, JD, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background and Purpose: More than 2,500 individuals in the U.S. are serving life without the opportunity for parole for crimes committed under the age of eighteen (JLWOP). Recently, the Supreme Court heard two cases addressing JLWOP. The cases seek to extend a recent ruling eliminating JLWOP for non-homicide offenses to juveniles sentenced for homicide offenses. Specifically, these cases address whether it is a violation of the 8th Amendment to sentence someone who committed their offense under the age of 15 to JLWOP, whether due process is violated through mandatory sentencing schemes when judges cannot consider mitigating factors, and whether it is an 8th Amendment violation to sentence someone to JLWOP for felony murder.

These cases raise a number of broader questions regarding JLWOP. First, what are the trends regarding the use of JLWOP? While the use of these sentences is not new, there is evidence that JLWOP increased dramatically in the 1990s as states increasingly punished juveniles as adults. Little is known, however, regarding whether their use has decreased over the last decade as knowledge about differences between juveniles and adults has increased and advocates have sought to reform sentencing policies and practices. Second, how does the use of this sentence differ in states where it is mandatory upon conviction compared to states where judges have discretion in sentencing? The purpose of this study is to examine these two questions.

Data and Methods: The data for this study include the number of JLWOP sentences in each state for the period of 1980-2009. These data were collected using a variety of sources and represent what is currently known about JLWOP sentences. Changes in homicide rates are measured using the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Reports. Because data are available for each state and year, Quadratic Growth Curve Modeling (QGCM) is used to examine trends in JLWOP, controlling for rate of homicide arrests, for mandatory and discretionary sentencing states. Time series analysis is also used to examine national trends while accounting for homicide arrests.

Results: The QGCM model shows that, accounting for homicide arrests, JLWOP sentences increased significantly from 1980 to 1998 and have then decreased significantly from 1998 to 2009. Although the slopes of the mandatory and discretionary curves do not differ significantly, model statistics indicate that the rate of JLWOP is significantly higher in mandatory states and thus that it makes sense to model them separately. Results from the time series analysis similarly demonstrate that there was a pattern in JLWOP sentencing – increase in the 1980s and 1990s followed by a decrease in total number of sentences, accounting for homicide arrests.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings indicate that the use of JLWOP is decreasing and that its use is significantly higher in mandatory sentencing states. This suggests that there is movement away from this sentence overall and that when discretion is allowed decision makers are less likely to use JLWOP. These findings will be discussed within the context of the Supreme Court’s decisions and broader efforts to reform sentencing practices.