Juvenile Life Without Parole in North Carolina
32 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2019 Last revised: 11 Mar 2019
Date Written: February 11, 2019
Life without parole is “an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile,” and as the U.S. Supreme Court noted in Graham v. Florida. The United States is the only country in the world that imposes juvenile life without parole sentences. Many of these individuals were sentenced during a surge in LWOP sentences in the 1990s. In the past decade, following several Supreme Court rulings eliminating mandatory sentences of LWOP for juvenile offenders, juvenile LWOP sentencing has declined. This Article aims to empirically assess the rise and then the fall in juvenile LWOP sentencing in a leading sentencing state, North Carolina, to better understand these trends and their implications. We examine the cases of 94 people in North Carolina who were sentenced to LWOP as juveniles. Their ages at the time of the offense ranged from 13 to 17. Of those, 51 are currently serving LWOP sentences (one more is currently pending a new trial). These cases are detailed in the Appendix. In North Carolina, JLWOP sentencing has markedly declined. Since 2011, there have been only five such sentences. Of the group of 94 juvenile offenders, 42 have so far been resentenced to non-LWOP sentences, largely pursuant to the post-Miller legislation in North Carolina. Over one third of the juveniles sentenced to LWOP, or 32 individuals, were not the killers, but were convicted under a felony murder theory. These sentences are concentrated in a small group of counties. A total of 61% or 57 of the 94 juvenile LWOP sentences in North Carolina were entered in the eleven counties that have imposed more than three such sentences. We find an inertia effect: once a county has used a JLWOP sentence they have a higher probability of using a JLWOP sentence again in the future. In contrast, homicide rates are not predictive of JLWOP sentences. We ask whether it makes practical sense to retain juvenile LWOP going forward, given what an unusual, geographically limited, and costly sentence it has become. In conclusion, we describe alternatives to juvenile LWOP as presently regulated in states like North Carolina, including a scheme following the model adopted in states like California and Wyoming, in which there is period review of lengthy sentences imposed on juvenile offenders.
Keywords: Juvenile, life without parole, sentencing
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