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Why The U.S. Is Still The Only Country Where Youth Are Sentenced To Die In Prison

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Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered states to stop sending youth offenders to prison for the the rest of their lives without the possibility of parole. Until then, the U.S. held the distinction of being the only country in the world where people were sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed before they were 18.

Not much has changed since then, according to a report published Tuesday by The Sentencing Project, a Washington group that advocates for sentencing reforms. The report takes a critical look at what it calls the country's “decidedly mixed” record of complying with the Supreme Court ruling.

Of the 28 states ordered to change their policies for punishing juveniles, most have yet to do so. Others have passed new laws that are “nearly as narrow minded” as the old ones, the report contends. Florida, Pennsylvania and Louisiana have replaced old laws with statutes that require some young offenders to spend a minimum of 35 years in prison. In Nebraska, juvenile offenders can now serve 40-year mandatory minimum sentences for crimes that used to result in life without parole.

Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project, noted that teenagers often mature as they reach early adulthood. “If legislators or the courts limit review until a 17-year-old is 52 years old, they violate both the spirit and the letter of the ruling," she said.

The 2012 Supreme Court ruling stemmed from two cases, both centered on 14-year old boys. In one, three youths planned to rob a video store, and one shot the store clerk to death. In the other, two boys set fire to a trailer, where they had bought drugs from a neighbor. The neighbor died in the blaze.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing the majority opinion, argued that life without parole for minors violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features -- among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Kagan wrote. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him -- and from which he cannot usually extricate himself -- no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”

Of the 13 states that have passed new legislation, only three allow juveniles sentenced under the old laws to seek a revised sentence. Although the Supreme Court didn’t specify whether states had to apply the ruling retroactively, Nellis argued that the approximately 2,000 people sentenced to mandatory life without parole as minors before June 25, 2012 -- the date of the Supreme Court ruling -- as are as deserving of a second chance as those sentenced later.

Lawmakers in several states that have passed tough new statutes didn’t reply to emails requesting a response to criticisms in the report.

Since 2012, at least four states have reformed their juvenile sentencing practices, even though the Supreme Court didn’t require them to do so. California now offers parole review to juvenile offenders after 15 years. Utah and Wyoming offer parole review after 25 years. West Virginia banned life without parole altogether, and now permits parole after 15 years.

John Ellem, a West Virginia lawmaker who sponsored his state’s reform package, defended leniency for young people in an op-ed for the Times Leader newspaper, of Martins Ferry, Ohio.

“We all fall short at times, and as a person of faith, I believe we all can be redeemed, particularly our children,” Ellem wrote. “Young people, often exposed to violence, poverty and neglect in home environments they cannot escape, sometimes make tragic mistakes. We should and can still hold them accountable for the harm they have caused but in an age-appropriate way that motivates them to learn from their mistakes and work toward the possibility of release."

CORRECTION: This article previously stated that 11 states have passed new legislation for sentencing minors. That information was taken from an early draft of the Sentencing Project report, and has been updated with information from the final version.

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