How Many “Juvenile Lifers” Are There?

The Issue of the Correct Number of “Juvenile Lifers” Cases in the USA

Victims families continue to be outraged at the frequent repetition of a completely wrong number  of JLWOP cases in the USA- an “estimate” that has now become gospel, even to the U.S. Supreme Court. That oft-repeated wrong number will range around 2500 cases of teen killers sentenced to life for their crimes. That number is wrong.

For example, for years Human Rights Watch and other offender advocates in Pennsylvania have claimed that there are near 450-500 JLWOP sentenced offenders in that state. In April 2013 accurate numbers were published by the state Department of Corrections – “The number of juveniles who were convicted of murder and are serving life sentences in four Western Pennsylvania counties, plus Philadelphia, where 55 percent of such cases in the state occurred . . . Statewide: 373 (as of June 2012)”

To address the controversy of how many actual teen killers there are serving life sentences as adults in the USA has been a difficult one because offender advocates made an estimate some years ago and many other media and policy outlets have continued to parrot their faulty estimate. We know that an exact count is nearly impossible because of the way records are kept in juvenile transfer cases to adult criminal court, and the way Departments of Corrections record their populations.

However, Human Rights Watch actually admitted to only being able to find 1,291 of these cases (Page 25 of their 2005 report. The link is here: The sentence says, “We have data on age at offense for 1,291 of the child offenders sentenced to life without parole.” When you read their entire report, including footnotes, you realize that this is probably a fairly good number, and may represent the lions share of JLWOPers in the country, as the research for Adult Time for Adult Crimes reports).

A count by correspondence request by researchers from the Heritage Foundation to all the Attorneys General of the states with JLWOP showed about 1300 cases, with 6 states not reporting. So we believe it is roughly accurate to say that there are about 1300 or perhaps a few more of these cases nationally – a rare sentence indeed. And that ALL policy advocates on this issue on either side should do as we do, and only use approximate estimates. Currently, offender advocates are claiming a number of cases approximately DOUBLE the actual counts done. They are trying to make this a “problem” that is bigger than it is.

Of course, to us, the victims’ families, the “problem” with the number of these cases is not the sentencing of the offenders, but the number of cases of our loved ones who are murdered.

In fact, knowing the exact number of these cases does not at all matter to the discussion on its merits about the appropriate prison sentence for anyone who commits murder. But juvenile advocates should know that it is hurtful to victims to have them representing this sentence as a huge problem with exaggerated numbers in order to provide some rationale for their efforts to end the sentence.

Juvenile advocates who wish to state a specific number of these cases MUST produce a physical LIST OF NAMES of the teenagers sentenced to life as adults for murder.

Please read the blog below from Charles Stimson:

National Conference of State Legislatures Sloppy Research

Posted February 16th, 2011 at 11:30am in Rule of Law

You could be forgiven for thinking that an organization called the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) would provide the public with accurate statistics from the states. But the group has put its credibility at risk by relying on bogus statistics on juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences from a group, Human Rights Watch, whose work in the area has been thoroughly discredited.

First, some background: As the co-author of “Adult Time for Adult Crimes: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Killers,” I have been studying the issue of JLWOP for years. JLWOP for juvenile killers is reasonable, constitutional, and (appropriately) rare. Forty-four states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government (including military courts) allow for JLWOP sentences for juvenile murderers tried in adult court. Used sparingly, this represents an overwhelming national consensus that JLWOP is, for the worst offenders, an effective, appropriate, and lawful punishment.

Nevertheless, radical anti-incarceration activists have sought to undermine the right of the people, acting through their state representatives, to impose this punishment in appropriate cases. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (AI/HRW) partnered in 2005 to co-author a bogus “study” that, among other misstatements, asserted that there were 2,225 juvenile felons serving LWOP sentences in the United States. Media outlets sympathetic to the anti-incarceration movement repeated that number for years without ever attempting to delve into the actual research.

“Adult Time for Adult Crimes” revealed serious flaws in their research methodology and proved that this number is simply wrong. The Department of Justice does not collect or have these statistics. State departments of correction often “lose” juveniles once they are tried in adult court and do not keep JLWOP statistics in a uniform or reliable manner. Worst of all, the AI/HRW report included 18- and 19-year-olds as “juveniles,” and its statistical assumptions were fatally flawed. Deep in their “study,” and stripped of manufactured statistics and bogus assumptions, the AI/HRW admits that they could only verify 1,291 actual juvenile offenders serving JWLOP in the United States. The bottom line: Since the states don’t know exactly how many juveniles are serving LWOP, no organization can state how many juveniles are serving JLWOP.

So I was rather surprised when, reading an otherwise thoughtful new law review article on JLWOP, I saw authors boldly assert, “As of 2010, there were 2445 juveniles serving life without parole sentences for homicides.” And what was the authority for that number? None other than a February 2010 report by the NCSL.

And what was NCSL’s source for the 2,445 number? Human Rights Watch, which happens to be the very same organization that manufactured 19-year-old “juveniles” for its “study.” If NCSL is serious about its credibility, it ought to find a better source for data on criminal justice and avoid quoting reports that have already been thoroughly discredited.