We hear a lot about juvenile offenders when they commit a crime — and again, when they're sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. But not much is known about what happens after the prison gates slam shut.
For the first time, researchers are starting to fill in the blanks — with a survey of nearly 1,600 young people serving life without the possibility of parole. They say the U.S. is the only country that sentences juveniles to life without the chance of release.
Ashley Nellis led the effort for the nonprofit group the Sentencing Project.
"You know, [these offenders are] more than just the worst mistake of their lives," Nellis says. "And it's important to find out what else was going on in their life, before and after."
Nellis found lots of violence and abuse in the homes of the juvenile offenders, chaos that began years before they ever broke the law. For instance, Sheldry Topp, who has been incarcerated in Michigan for 49 years, told researchers he committed his crime after running away to escape abuse in his home.
"I had no intention of killing anyone that night," Topp wrote in his survey. "I only wanted to escape from the [state] hospital. I spent most of my life from the age of about 13 in various juvenile [homes] and hospitals because of my attempts to escape from a father whom I feared so much that I constantly trembled in his presence."
The survey also reported whopping rates of being suspended or thrown out of school before an arrest.
Then, Nellis says, there's this: "a disturbing racial disparity."
"We found that the proportion of African-Americans serving juvenile life without parole for killing a white person is nearly twice the rate for which African-American juveniles were arrested for taking a white person's life," Nellis says.
But it's what happens inside the walls of prisons these days that really bothers advocates for corrections reform.
The new survey says more than 60 percent of juveniles locked up for life aren't enrolled in classes or educational programs in prison. Not because the inmates don't want to go, but because budget tightening and prison rules block many people with life sentences from taking part.
Charles Dutton is an award-winning actor. But as a juvenile, he wound up in prison for manslaughter and other crimes.
"When I was a prisoner, when I was going in and out of prison [in] the '60s and the '70s and this was in the state of Maryland, you couldn't come out of your cell if you didn't go to school," Dutton says. "From what I'm understanding now in the juvenile system, they give these kids Game Boys. You know, you go into a juvenile place and all these kids are playing Game Boys. I mean, playing Game Boys and not going to school, what sense does that make?"
No sense, says Raphael Johnson. Today, Johnson heads a community group. But when he was 17, he fired a gun, killing a bystander after a fight. He barely escaped a sentence of life without parole — instead a judge sent him away for more than 10 years.
"The system is designed to really destroy," Johnson says. "It is not designed for rehabilitation, it's not designed for self correction, self analysis."
For many young people serving long sentences, Johnson says, GED programs and vocational training are out of reach. Eventually, some of those opportunities gradually open up. But he did most of his learning on his own.
The most important lesson might have come from the old A&E program Parole Board. It ran every Sunday at 2 o'clock.
"And one of the things that they said was, when inmates are honest and they realize that they need help ... then we can take a chance on that kind of person," Johnson says.
Johnson used those tips to win his release — after two previous rejections from the parole board.
The survey says many juvenile prisoners settle in just as Johnson did, getting into less and less trouble as the years go by.
Still, prosecutors say the possibility of life without parole for a juvenile offender is needed for the very worst of cases.
"It is seldom used. ... It is one of the most gut-wrenching decisions a prosecutor will ever make in her or his career," says Scott Burns, a prosecutor who leads the National District Attorneys Association. "But there are those just simply painful, incredibly horrific cases where it should be an option."
Burns says the finality of a life sentence can bring comfort to families of victims who won't have to go through multiple parole board proceedings reliving the crime each time.
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