Growing Up Behind Bars

The United States was the only country to condemn minors to life in prison with no chance for parole. In recent years the Supreme Court has ruled this unconstitutional. Yet more than 2,000 so-called juvenile lifers remain in prison in what the court says is cruel and unusual punishment.

Howard Center for Investigative Journalism | CNS | PBS NewsHour

(This work is a collaboration among the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service and the PBS NewsHour.)

Three Supreme Court decisions have changed the landscape of juvenile justice policy since the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s. Together, they ruled unconstitutional both the death penalty and life without parole for juvenile offenders.

The response to those rulings has been strikingly varied from state to state. Three states had large numbers of juveniles sentenced to life without parole, effectively sentenced to die in prison: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida. Pennsylvania stands out for its efforts to resentence and release juveniles.

Three other states, Maryland, California and Oklahoma, require a governor’s signature to grant parole rather than the approval of an appointed parole board. Again, those states have responded unevenly. Marsha Levick, the chief legal officer of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, captured the essence of the situation when she said, “In America, it’s either justice by geography, justice by race, or justice by wealth.”

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