Emerging Adults Often Sentenced to Life in Prison

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Emerging Adults Often Sentenced to Life in Prison      

Jim Windell


           In some states, such as Michigan, nearly half of all people sentenced to life in prison are emerging adults – that is, are between the ages of 18 and 25.

           The concept of emerging adulthood, that has gained greater acceptance in developmental psychology in recent years, flies in the face of traditional thinking that adulthood begins at age 18.

           According to Ashley Nellis, the Sentencing Project’s co-director of research, and Niki Monazzam, a research fellow, “The legal demarcation of 18 as adulthood rests on outdated notions of adolescence. Based on the best scientific understanding of human development, ages 18 to 25 mark a unique stage of life between childhood and adulthood which is recognized within the fields of neuroscience, sociology, and psychology.”

            Writing in a new report entitled “Left to Die in Prison: Emerging Adults 25 and Younger Sentenced to Life without Parole,” Nellis and Monazzam state that the identification of full criminal accountability at age 18 ignores the important, distinct phase of human development referred to as emerging adulthood – also known as late adolescence or young adulthood. Compelling evidence, Nellis and Monazzam conclude shows that most adolescents are not fully matured into adulthood until their mid-twenties.

           Recently released, this new report analyzes information from a newly compiled nationally representative dataset of nearly 30,000 individuals sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) between 1995 and 2017. Their research reviews adolescent brain development revealing that emerging adults share more characteristics with youth than adults. And the authors provide judicial, legislative and administrative reform updates in nine jurisdictions: California, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Vermont, Washington, Washington, DC, and Wyoming.

           The findings presented in the report state that two in five people – 11,600 individuals –sentenced to LWOP between 1995 and 2017 were under 26 at the time of their sentence. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California, nearly half of those sentenced to LWOP were younger than 26. Nationally, the peak age at conviction was age 23, which is well within the period between youth and adulthood.

           Moreover, Nellis and Monazzam found that that two thirds (66%) of people under 26 years old sentenced to LWOP are Black compared with 51% of persons sentenced to LWOP beyond this age. As they show in this report, analysis finds that being Black and young has produced a substantially larger share of LWOP sentences than being Black alone. This fact reinforces the growing understanding that extreme sentences disproportionately impact Black Americans.

           The report’s findings support a recent sentencing trend recognizing emerging adulthood as a developmental stage. In fact, more than a dozen states have introduced or passed legislative reforms or adopted jurisprudential restrictions in recent years to protect emerging adults from extreme punishment. These reforms utilize the latest scientific understanding of adolescence and young adulthood to recognize emerging adulthood as a necessary consideration in assigning culpability.

           Among the recommendations at the end of the report are that sentences that do not allow review should never be imposed on individuals who have not yet reached adulthood and that life sentences with no option for parole review should be struck down entirely for emerging adults and should be limited to a maximum of 15 years. Finally, Nellis and Monazzam recommend that there should be special consideration in the sentencing of persons whose crime occurred before they reached adulthood.

           To read the full report, find it at: https://www.sentencingproject.org/reports/left-to-die-in-prison-emerging-adults-25-and-younger-sentenced-to-life-without-parole/

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