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Young Prisoners Serving Life Without Parole

July 31, 2017, on Probation & Parole Violations |

When you are faced with charges that carry a lengthy prison term, it is vital to talk with a New York defense lawyer to try to minimize the serious consequences you're facing or to try to avoid a prison sentence altogether by successfully defending your case. This is especially true when there is the possibility that conviction could result in a sentence of life in prison without parole.

A sentence of life without parole is one of the most serious penalties that could be imposed and it should be imposed only in the most egregious of cases, if at all. Unfortunately, The Atlantic writes that many young people have been sentenced to life in prison without parole or were sentenced to a “virtual” life sentence because the prison term they were sentenced to exceeds a human life span. 

Young people typically do not have the impulse control or brain development that allows them to understand the implications of their actions, so many believe that these sentences are disproportionately harsh and inappropriate.

Life Sentences without Parole for Young People

More than 200,000 people are currently serving life sentences, the Atlantic reports.  Among those serving life sentences, approximately 2,300 people serving sentences of life without parole were arrested as juveniles, and another 7,300 people serving virtual life sentences were arrested as juveniles. While the latter group could potentially become eligible for parole after decades in prison, the first group has little to no hope of ever leaving prison alive.

Life without parole is the most serious penalty that can now be imposed on minors, since a 2005 Supreme Court case in which a 5-4 vote resulted in the abolition of the death penalty for someone who was under aged 18 when his or her offense was committed.

In the Supreme Court case, Roper v. Simmons, Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion and cited research about a minor's immaturity, vulnerability to peer pressure, and rash decision-making that ignores consequences. All of these factors were reasons why death would not be an appropriate penalty.  The decision was also grounded in research showing that minors can learn more readily from mistakes because they are still developing. Such reasoning would also suggest a ruling of life without parole is inappropriate for a minor, just as the death penalty is.

The juveniles who have been sentenced to life without parole are primarily concentrated in four states. New York is one of them, and Georgia, California and Texas are the other three. Within these four states reside 63 percent of juvenile offenders who are serving life without parole.  Meanwhile, in at least 17 states, the law now prohibits a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile, no matter what the circumstances of the juvenile's offense are. 

Although advocates of criminal justice reform believe it is a good thing that more and more states have moved towards preventing youth offenders from being sentenced to life behind bars, these newly-passed laws only prevent future sentences and do not overturn past sentences of life without parole for the thousands who were sentenced as young people and who are currently languishing in prison without any hope of getting out.  The changing laws on the state level also don't help minors in other states – including New York – where the possibility of life without parole is still an option in serious criminal cases.

A New York defense lawyer can represent defendants of all ages who have been charged with serious crimes. To find out more about how an attorney can help you to take proactive steps to avoid harsh penalties including lengthy imprisonment, contact criminal defense attorney James E. Tyner as soon as possible after you have been charged.

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