Juvenile Law Center

Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Challenging Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) and Other Harsh Sentences

The United States is the only country in the world that currently sentences juveniles to life without the possibility of parole (JLWOP). Approximately 2,600 inmates nationwide serve life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles; 524 of them are incarcerated in Pennsylvania—the most of any U.S. jurisdiction. Juvenile life without parole sentences are disproportionately imposed on children of color. For example, African-American youth serve life without parole sentences “at a rate that is ten times higher than white youth.”1

In June 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court held that "mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments' and that a 'judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.'"

Miller followed the Court's 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida, in which the U.S. Supreme Court banned life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of a non-homicide offense, largely because developmental and scientific research demonstrates how juveniles, including those who commit violent crimes, possess a greater capacity for rehabilitation, change, and growth than adults do, and are less blameworthy for their criminal conduct.

Building on the amicus briefs we filed in Graham and Miller, Juvenile Law Center works to end the practice of sentencing any juvenile to life without the possibility of parole, in Pennsylvania and around the country. We work to ensure that sentencers heed the U.S. Supreme Court’s expectation in Miller that appropriate occasions for JLWOP would be “uncommon,” and that sentencers do not allow the facts of a particular homicide offense to overpower mitigating evidence of the youth’s age and related developmental characteristics.

We have also submitted numerous briefs in courts nationwide arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Miller is retroactive and therefore applies to all juveniles serving unconstitutional mandatory life without parole sentences. 

Additionally, we support challenges to felony murder (see State v. Layman), where the youth neither personally killed, nor intended to kill, the victim, but criminal law nevertheless permits their prosecution for homicide. In many of these felony murder cases, juveniles are also subject to life without parole sentences. We are involved in challenges to extreme sentences in several jurisdictions that, because of their length, are the functional equivalent of life in prison and fail to provide youth a meaningful opportunity for release (see People of California v. Caballero). We also challenge sentencing schemes that do not require judges to treat age as a mitigating factor before imposing life without parole sentences on juveniles (see State of Ohio v. Long).


1 Amnesty Int’l & Human Rights Watch, The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States (2005).


Last Update: 2/10/2015

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