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Sentenced young: The story of life without parole for juvenile offenders

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prisonNationwide, there are at least 1,200 people serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed when they were children. No central agency tracks these sentences, so reliable numbers are hard to come by. A 2008 Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch (HRW) report counted 2,484 such people. \

A 2009 Heritage Foundation report took issue with their methodology and put the number at a more conservative 1,291. In addition, thousands more teenagers have been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole (which most experts agree is, in practice, the same sentence, given how rarely lifers get parole), or to de facto life sentences of 60 years or more. The United States is the only country in the world where kids are sentenced to die in prison.

A common perception is that these kids are “the worst of the worst,” and indeed, many juveniles sentenced to life have done terrible things. But HRW estimates that a quarter of them were, like Jennifer, convicted of “aiding and abetting” or of felony murders. Almost 60 percent had no prior criminal convictions. \

More than 70 juveniles were just 13 or 14 years old at the time of their crime — some so small when they arrived in prison that all the uniforms were too big for them. Anecdotally, many, like Jennifer, had been subjected to abuse and neglect, their childhoods marred by instability, poverty and violent or criminal behavior by the adults in their life.



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