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1,000 'Child Lifers' Have Won Release Under High Court Rulings

Of the more than 300 inmates serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles who became eligible for resentencing in Philadelphia in 2016, all but about a dozen have been resentenced, and more than 220 have been released, most on lifetime parole.

That’s nearly a quarter of the 1,000 child lifers who have been released across the U.S. among 2,800 who received such sentences. These numbers make Philadelphia, once an outlier in imprisoning minors for life, now an outlier in letting them go. By 2020, the city had resentenced more child lifers than Michigan and Louisiana combined, reports the New York Times.

What set the city apart, said Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, was not just the buy-in from local officials and public defenders, but also the community of child lifers who became their own best argument for release.

“It was the way they organized, the way they cared for one another, the way they modeled a kind of readiness to contribute to society,” Stevenson said. “These young people had been told they were going to die in prison. Some of them just never accepted that.”

Since Supreme Court decisions more than a decade ago striking down mandatory life without parole terms for juvenile offenders, more than half of the states have outlawed life without parole sentences for children altogether, reducing the number of child lifers to fewer than 600, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, a nonprofit.

Stevenson’s organization is trying to raise the minimum age at which children can be tried as adults in 11 states, including Pennsylvania, where there is no age floor. Other states are considering abolishing mandatory life without parole sentences for people under 21.

While life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles are now rare, the Supreme Court has issued a ruling that could lower the bar for judges to apply the sentence to children in states where it is still allowed.

A prosecutor in Oakland County, Mich., is seeking life without parole for a mass shooter who was 15 when he killed four students at his high school in 2021. A judge will weigh the horror of his crime against the possibility that, over time, he could change.

The U.S. is the only country that gives courts the discretion to send children to prison without the chance of proving themselves later in life at a parole hearing. The tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1990s is making a comeback, thanks to a spike in violent crime that began during the pandemic.

Though this uptick in crime is showing signs of decline, it has prompted a backlash against progressive prosecutors, including Philadelphia's Larry Krasner, whose comparatively lenient approach has become a lightning rod in local politics.

Krasner was the subject of an impeachment effort by Pennsylvania Republicans, and even some Democrats raced to condemn his record during the city’s mayoral primary in May.

In general, juveniles sentenced to life without parole but have won release have become some of the loudest voices for building upon the gains they fought for while on the inside. Their fight now is about abolishing life without parole for everyone, getting young people out of adult prisons and addressing the causes of the violence plaguing major cities.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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