A Just Alternative to Sentencing Youth to Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole

Author(s): 
Jody Kent and Beth Colgan
Publication Date: 
March 8, 2010

ACS is pleased to distribute "A Just Alternative to Sentencing Youth to Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole," an Issue Brief by Jody Kent, Director and National Coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and Beth Colgan, Managing Attorney of the Institutions Project at Columbia Legal Services. This Issue Brief is particularly timely in light of the Supreme Court’s consideration of the constitutionality of juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole in two cases, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. Ms. Kent and Ms. Colgan examine why, in their opinion, such sentencing practices represent deeply flawed public policy. As the authors explain:

Regardless of whether the Court extends [its precedent acknowledging that juveniles are different from adults] to find the sentencing of youth to life in prison without the possibility of parole unconstitutional in one or both of these cases, advocates for youth have called for reform of extreme sentencing policies, on the basis that they grossly undermine rational, fair, and age-appropriate treatment of youth.

Ms. Kent and Ms. Colgan discuss the well-established principle that youth are different from adults, and explain how this principle is reinforced by adolescent brain development research. The authors address and dismiss arguments that harsh sentencing is necessary to protect public safety, as well as highlight troubling racial disparities and inconsistent sentencing application. In addition, they describe how such sentencing functions to undermine the United States’s moral standing, given that the United States is the only country in the world to sentence offenders under the age of eighteen to life without parole. Finally, the Issue Brief concludes with Ms. Kent and Ms. Colgan proposing an alternative to the practice of sentencing youth to life in prison without the possibility of parole --- creation of a system allowing periodic review of sentences to determine whether individuals continue to pose a threat to society or may be returned to communities as productive citizens. In the view of the authors, this approach balances the need to hold young offenders accountable, while still recognizing their inherent capacity for change and growth.