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Why Are Children Going to Prison for Life?

Even after a Supreme Court ruling, thousands of minors are still locked up -- and may never end up leaving.

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While the opinion didn’t impose a categorical ban on life without parole sentences for juveniles, it requires that authorities “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

The decision follows in the steps of a recent line of Supreme Court cases stating that kids, by virtue of their youth and lack of fully matured brains, are different from adults and have greater capacity for rehabilitation. In 2005, the Court  struck down the death penalty for those under 18. In 2010, it  forbade life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes that aren’t murder.

The patchy aftermath of the 2010 decision illustrates the challenges states have faced in implementing changes to their laws. Florida — which dispensed the  lion’s share of life without parole sentences to minors for non-homicides — is  still grappling with how to address the ruling. Greater discretion in judges’ hands has also led, in some cases, to 70- to 90-year sentences for minors — while not technically life, a comparable term of years.

What’s next?

In the wake of Miller, some states around the country have already taken legislative action. North Carolina recently passed  an amendment granting juvenile lifers parole review after 25 years. It also requires judges to consider such factors as age, immaturity, intellectual capacity, mental health history, and the influence of familial or peer pressure when imposing punishment.

In Michigan, which boasts the second-highest number of juvenile lifers, criminal defense attorneys have begun  mobilizing legal assistance for current inmates despite disagreement as to whether or not the court’s decision is retroactive.

In Pennsylvania, the state with the most number of juvenile offenders serving life without parole (444), the state Senate Judiciary Committee recently solicited testimony from  various stakeholders to decide how to proceed. The issue of retroactivity there, too, remains  uncertain.

Iowa’s recent executive order is not the first time a governor preemptively took action following a Supreme Court ruling: In 2005, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas  commuted the death sentences of 28 juvenile offenders, changing them to life sentences with the possibility of parole  after 40 years. Around the same time, he had also signed a mandatory life without parole statute for juveniles; Texas abolished the statute  in 2009.

If the Iowa governor’s order stands, 38 juvenile offenders — including David Epps — will not be eligible for parole until they reach their mid-70s, about the normal life expectancy of Americans. But of course prison can  prematurely age people. The National Institute of Corrections  designates an elderly or aging prisoner as age 50 and older.

Recidivism rates also decline the older a prisoner gets: In Iowa, statistics show these rates  drop markedly once an inmate reaches age 45 and even more dramatically by the time he’s 55.

In light of the governor’s action in Iowa, any hope Dennis Epps had of ever seeing his brother get out of prison was short-lived. The governor “might as well have left them serving a life sentence, because that’s pretty much what that is,” he said.


Correction: A second reference to Dan Filler incorrectly stated that he is a Drake law professor. He is a Drexel law professor.

Suevon Lee is a writer at ProPublica.
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