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Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings From a National Survey

NCJ Number
Ashley Nellis, Ph.D.
Date Published
March 2012
47 pages

This report by the Sentencing Project presents the results of a survey that examined the life of juvenile offenders sentenced to life without parole.


Key findings from the survey of juveniles sentenced to life without parole (juvenile lifers) include the following: a majority of juvenile lifers experienced high levels of exposure to violence in their homes and communities; a large percentage of female juvenile lifers suffered high rates of sexual and physical abuse; less than half of juvenile lifers were attending school at the time of their offense; the majority of juvenile life without parole sentences were imposed in States where judges were obligated to impose the sentence regardless of the offenders age or life circumstances; and a majority of juvenile lifers do not engage in programming in prison because of State or prison policies. This report, developed by The Sentencing Project, presents the results of a survey that examined the life of juvenile offenders who have been sentenced to life without parole. Data for the report were obtained from a survey of 1,579 individuals around the country who had been convicted of a crime and were serving a sentence of life without parole. The purpose of the survey was to 1) obtain information on the features of juvenile lifers' childhoods so as to better understand their criminal behavior; 2) obtain information on the experiences of teenagers processed in the adult criminal justice system; and3) identify the present circumstances of juvenile lifers. Analysis of survey results identified several factors that help to explain the criminal behavior of these young offenders. These factors are discussed in detail and include the home environment, exposure to violence, family members in prison, and school attendance and childhood friendships. The report also examines the dynamics of the offenses committed by juvenile lifers, and presents a set of recommendations for reforming the use of life without parole for juvenile offenders. Figures, endnotes, and appendix