In December 2006, the United Nations voted on an international human rights question: whether to abolish life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for incarcerated children and young teenagers. The result? 185 to 1 in favor of scrapping the harsh sentence—with the United States as the only dissenter. Multiple human rights organizations protested the U.S. decision, insisting that individual states should be required to review minor offenders’ sentences as years passed, as there may be cases where parole is warranted.
Later, the Supreme Court agreed. In 2012, the Supreme Court’s Miller v. Alabama verdict found that when it came to juvenile offenders, even murderers, “all but the rarest children” deserve a chance at release and must be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
Judge Elena Kagan wrote “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.'”
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Since then, 31 states and Washington D.C. have banned automatic life without parole sentences for minors. States that didn’t ban the sentence began implementing it less and less, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system.
“In 2012, there were some 2,600 young people serving life without parole; now the number hovers between 700 and 1200, depending on who is counting and by what metrics,” they reported in April 2021. “Pennsylvania had 541 juvenile lifers, according to data from the Juvenile Law Center, an advocacy group there. Now, the state has six.” (Sixty youth still awaited resentencing as of that report’s publication date.)
“Just think about the changes that you go through from age 12 to 17,” says Apryl Alexander, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver, who has evaluated juveniles before their trials. “That’s a big time gap for all youth. And so, the Miller decision was really critical in getting our system back to what we thought it was intended for—and that was rehabilitation for youth.” (Alexander tells A&E True Crime that she does believe that there are juvenile offenders who will not be rehabilitated, but maintains that they belong in mental health facilities, not prisons.)
Despite Miller, the issue of life without parole (LWOP) sentences remains controversial.
In April 2021, a new Supreme Court decision—Jones v. Mississippi—gave local judges a lot more discretion when deciding if a juvenile offender deserves life without parole, arguing that Miller and Montgomery v. Louisiana (another verdict about minor sentencing) were meant to keep such sentences rare but not nonexistent. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the Jones verdict “guts” Miller.
“If sentencing discretion is all that is required, far too many juvenile offenders will be sentenced to die in prison,” she said while emphasizing racial disparities in sentencing. (Seventy percent of all youths sentenced to life without parole are children of color.)
The same month the Jones verdict was delivered, news came that the life without parole sentence of Evan Miller, ofMiller v. Alabama, who is now 32, would stand. Miller was the youngest person to face LWOP and who inspired the end of mandatory life without parole sentencing for juveniles.
In July 2003, at age 14, Miller struck his neighbor Cole Cannon with a baseball bat during a robbery and later set fire to his trailer, where Cannon died of smoke inhalation. Miller’s friend Colby Smith, who pleaded guilty and testified against Miller, had hit the neighbor once with the bat and participated in the arson. Smith received life in prison with the possibility of parole. Smith was denied parole in 2021 but is up for it again in 2026.
On April 21, 2021, Lawrence County Circuit Judge Mark Craig resentenced Miller to life in prison without parole, reaffirming the original sentence.
After the judge rendered his decision, Cannon’s daughter Candy Cheatham said, “I’m thankful to God. I’m thankful for Judge Craig’s decision…. It feels like justice is preserved. It is a deserved sentence.”
Critics of resentencing teens cite concerns about the possibility of recidivism for violent crimes.
A 2015 report published in Adolescent Research Review compiled recidivism data from 39 states and found that 76 percent of first-time offenders re-offended within three years, and 84 percent within five years. But these studies include nonviolent crimes such as underage drinking, marijuana possession and traffic violations in addition to violent crimes.
A University of Wisconsin study on juvenile sexual offenders in 2009 found a 4.92 percent sex crime recidivism rate since 1980, with a rate of 2.75 percent from 2000 to 2015.
The data on teens who have committed homicides, specifically, seemed less promising.
“Although the rate of juvenile-perpetrated murders has been declining since the 1990s, it remains problematic,” reported a 2015 study by the University of South Florida. At the time, juvenile offenders accounted for approximately 10 percent of all homicide arrests. “The results indicated that close to 90 percent of released offenders have been rearrested during the 30-year follow-up period, and more than 60 percent have been rearrested for violent offenses.”
Some prominent voices in American forensic psychology do believe violent juveniles can be rehabilitated—but that a lot more needs to be done to achieve that outcome.
“If we’re considering the possibility of parole [for juvenile offenders], what kind of things do they need in place in order to not recidivate?” says Alexander, who received a federal grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2020 to start a trauma treatment program for justice-involved girls. “Are they getting mental health treatment? A lot of the kids who engage in murder often have low IQ—so, do they have the educational support in order to thrive in their environment?”
Successful programs do exist, says forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland, who has extensively corresponded with Dennis Rader, better known as BTK, who showed violent tendencies as a youth many years before becoming a prolific serial killer.
“[America should] put more money into the juvenile system where treatments are working, use those centers and put them in more states,” Ramsland tells A&E True Crime. “There’s a place in Wisconsin, the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center—it’s an expensive program, but it is working. [The people there] do not recidivate—they do not repeat their crimes in ways that non-treated offenders do. But it’s expensive because it’s intensive. It’s very one-on-one.”
Re-entry programs like the three-year Juveniles Convicted as Adults Program in Colorado aim to give former juvenile offenders who have served significant time in prison the support and skills they need to return to their community.
But such programs are not universally embraced. Former Arapahoe County (Colorado) District Attorney George Brauchler believes early release for violent offenders betrays victims’ families.
Advocates argue that the release is not arbitrary; better preparation for release involves the juvenile’s growth since their conviction. “They’re assessing dynamic risk factors that we hope to see change in treatment,” says Alexander. “Is the child exhibiting better empathy? Do they have accountability for their offense? Are their substance abuse issues alleviated?”
These are questions Alexander believes should be asked about adult offenders as well.
“I often tell people: 70 percent of individuals in our prison system are going to come back to our communities,” she says. “So, don’t you want [communities] to be safe?”