New report looks at life-without-parole sentencing for young adults

By: - June 8, 2023 6:00 am
Hands holding bars from inside

Photo: Getty Images

A new report from the Sentencing Project found that 40% of people sentenced to life-without-parole in North Carolina between 1995 and 2017 were “emerging adults,” between the ages of 18 and 25.

That percentage is the sixth-highest in the U.S., and the highest in the South.

“The legal demarcation of 18 as adulthood rests on outdated notions of adolescence,” wrote the report’s authors, Ashley Nellis, the Sentencing Project’s co-director of research, and Niki Monazzam, a research fellow. “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.”

Nellis and Monazzam argue that research on adolescent brain development show that young people between ages 18 and 25 share more in common with children than adults. They contend that cutting off childhood at age 18 fails to capture the complexity of young adulthood, the ways their brains are still developing well into their 20s. That can lead to them engaging in risky, impulsive and even criminal behavior, side effects of their poor control of their emotions.

“These lead to suboptimal decisions that can include violence, especially when a young person’s child- hood is saturated with individual or community violence,” Nellis and Monazzam wrote.

The Sentencing Project found that, nationwide, 40% of people sentenced to LWOP over the 22-year review period were younger than 26 years old at the time of their sentence. That means more than 11,000 emerging adults were given a prison sentence that would only end with their death.

Two-thirds of emerging adults given an LWOP sentence were Black, the researchers found.

“Being Black and young has produced a substantially larger share of LWOP sentences than being Black alone,” Nellis and Monazzam wrote.

The pair suggest that life-without-parole sentences should be thrown out for emerging adults and their punishment should be capped at 15 years imprisonment, max.

“This reform is a starting point in reorienting the justice system toward one that applies punishments only in proportion to both the crime and the culpability of the person who committed the crime,” Nellis and Monazzam argue.

Click here to read the rest of the report.

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.