Children Behind Bars: Justice for Juveniles Sentenced to Life Without Parole

“I want to know how it feels to sit with my sister and have a cup of coffee . . . to walk down the street . . . to sit in the car and hear the rain just beat down.” Six months before her death, Sharon Wiggins described her aspirations to a news reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper. In March 2014, Wiggins died at age 62 in a maximum-security prison, where she had been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole since she was 17. While in prison, Wiggins obtained a degree from Penn State University and became employed by the university as a student services liaison; she tutored other prisoners to help them obtain GEDs and oversaw “back-on-track” programs for parole violators. Wiggins was one of about 2,500 prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles (“juvenile lifers”); the United States is the only country in the world that still imposes this sentence. In consideration of the story of Wiggins, the evidence of differences between children and adults and the Supreme Court cases mandating changes in sentencing schemes, states should no longer impose mandatory life sentences without parole on juveniles.

Sentencing a youth to life in prison without the possibility of parole declares that the youth cannot be changed or that change is immaterial. This judgment is at odds with scientific studies showing marked physiological development from adolescence to adulthood. For most people, the brain is not fully developed until age 25. At age 18, the brain is “about halfway through the process” of developing control over impulses and decision-making. As an adolescent, the perception of rewards peaks, leading to increased risk-taking and susceptibility to peer pressure. In teenagers, the primary part of the brain which responds to environmental stimuli is the amygdala, the part of the brain which governs instinctual or “gut” reactions; adults primarily use the frontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning. Thus, as children develop into adults, they are enabled to respond to environmental stimuli in more rational, measured ways.

These differences have been recognized at the state and federal level and continue to serve as the basis for policy reformation. Within the last seven years, the Supreme Court has issued three broad-sweeping opinions on mandatory life without parole sentences. Under these sentencing schemes, judges must impose a life sentence, regardless of the circumstances of the individual. This prevents the judge from considering, for example, childhood trauma, mental disability, and parental drug or alcohol abuse—factors which affect between 40-70% of juvenile lifers. In the 2010 case, Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court cited juveniles’ “objective immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true depravity,” when it prohibited life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide offenses. In 2012, the Supreme Court prohibited mandatory juvenile life sentences without parole in Miller v. Alabama. The Supreme Court emphasized that, considering juveniles’ potential for change, their inability to change their circumstances, and their incompetencies as youth, mandatory sentences completely disregard the “possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.” States interpreted this ruling in varied ways, leading to the 2016 case of Montgomery v. Louisiana. In Montgomery, the Court stated that Miller’s prohibition applied to all juveniles serving mandatory life sentences without parole, including individuals sentenced prior to the Miller decision in 2012, and required states to offer a meaningful chance for release.

Currently, mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences are banned or not practiced in 20 states and the District of Columbia. Yet, some states have responded by replacing life sentences with sixty-year prison terms, approximately an offender’s lifetime. Reformation must continue. The sentencing schemes should recognize children’s capacity to mature; prisoners sentenced to life as juveniles should be given a chance at parole, possibly at 10 or 15 years, as is the standard in other countries. Since the Montgomery decision, Pennsylvania, Sharon Wiggin’s state and the state with the largest number of inmates serving juvenile life without parole sentences, has released close to 60 people.


Suggested citation: Abby Yeo, Children Behind Bars: Justice for Juveniles Sentenced to Life Without ParoleCornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (Jan. 23, 2018),

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