African Americans are significantly overrepresented among youth serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences. For years, LDF has worked to abolish LWOP sentences for crimes committed by juveniles. In May 2008, LDF released, No Chance to Make It Right: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders in Mississippi, examining the racial, social, political, and economic circumstances surrounding juvenile life without parole sentencing in Mississippi.
LDF's study found that African Americans are significantly overrepresented among the youth currently serving LWOP sentences. Specifically, at the time of publication, twenty of the twenty-six Mississippians sentenced to life without parole as teenagers were African American.
LDF also found that once a child is tried and convicted as an adult of capital murder, judges have no choice but to impose a sentence of life without parole. Judges cannot consider the individual aspects of a child’s background that may have contributed to his crimes, nor can they consider the child’s capacity for rehabilitation. LDF believes this “one size fits all” policy is a major flaw of the sentencing structure currently in place in Mississippi.
Considering these and other troubling findings, LDF, and now TMI, has advocated for a series of reforms including the complete elimination of life without parole sentences for all children. LDF believes that a sentence of life without any possibility of parole fails to recognize the capacity for rehabilitation inherent in all children. It also fails to take into account the poverty, unstable family structures, and lack of educational opportunities that have played a role in the lives of many of Mississippi's youth.
Much of our advocacy effort has been focused in Jackson, Mississippi, where, in 2015, TMI community organizers partnered with local stakeholders, families, and loved ones of people serving juvenile LWOP sentences to establish CRYOUT—the Coalition for Resentencing Youth United Together. CRYOUT strives to provide answers to the non-legal questions that confront family members and to provide a safe and confidential environment to discuss issues related to sentencing children as adults, focusing on juvenile life without parole (JLWOP).
Click here to view the report No Chance to Make It Right.
“I want to have hope, but hope will drive you crazy. I hope for the best, but expect the worst; that way I’m never disappointed.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has significantly restricted the practice of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.
In Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court ruled that states may not make life without parole sentences mandatory for murders committed by juveniles. The ruling did not abolish LWOP sentences for juveniles entirely, but mandates judges must also have the discretion to impose a sentence that includes the possibility of parole.
In Montgomery V. Louisiana (2016), the Court ruled that juveniles who were sentenced to LWOP prior to the Miller case must have an opportunity to argue that they should be eligible for parole. Some states had taken the position that Miller was not effective retroactively; Montgomery made clear that it is retroactive.
The rulings leave states with discretion to set conditions under which juvenile offenders are eligible for parole. We remain active in monitoring juvenile LWOP cases and advocating for fairer sentencing.