Young Black Adults Face Greater Risk of Being Sentenced to Life Without Parole

PC: Mitchel Lensink

By Jonathan Lewis and Paige Barrella

WASHINGTON, DC – The Sentencing Project released results Thursday from a study finding that 40 percent of those sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) are under the age of 25.

The Sentencing Project also concluded “two-thirds of those sentenced to LWOP as emerging adults were Black, revealing that being young and Black appears to be associated with a greater likelihood of receiving LWOP than the trends we observe among older people sentenced to LWOP.”

The study was conducted across 20 states and includes nearly 30,000 LWOP sentences spanning over a 22-year period, The Sentencing Project states “[comprises] approximately 70 percent of the total LWOP population.”

And, of those 30,000 LWOP sentences, over 11,000 of them were given to people under 25 years old. The report finds the peak age of conviction for those sentenced to LWOP is 23 years old. 

This age group is within the period of emerging adulthood and there is evidence that individuals of a younger age are lacking in ability to understand the risks and consequences of their actions, said The Sentencing Project.

“Our criminal legal system relies on an outdated and unscientific view that brain development is complete at age 18,” said Ashley Nellis, co-director of research at The Sentencing Project and lead author of the report. 

“Emerging adults share many key developmental characteristics with adolescents under age 18. Despite their serious crimes, these individuals have tremendous potential for growth and opportunity,” Nellis added.

Psychology Today states the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in planning and other executive functions, is still developing into early adulthood. 

The Sentencing Project recommends the abolishment of LWOP and instead a maximum sentence of 15 years for people 25 and younger.

About The Author

Jonathan is a second year student at UC Davis majoring in Managerial Economics and minoring in Political Science and History.

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