Juvenile Justice

National Analysis of Juveniles Serving Life Sentences

Ashley Nellis
Senior Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project

Key Findings

  • Seventy-nine percent of juveniles with life sentences experienced high levels of violence in their homes with 54% witnessing weekly violence in their neighborhoods.
  • Nearly half of juveniles sentenced to life experienced physical abuse, increasing to more than three-quarters (79.5%) for girls in 2012.
  • One-third of juveniles serving life sentences were raised in public housing.
  • More than half of juveniles serving life sentences did not attend school when they committed a crime.
  • More than 80% of juveniles serving life sentences had been expelled or suspended at some point during their schooling.
  • Race plays a large role in determining which juveniles are sentenced to life without parole.
  • Most juveniles with life sentences are not able to participate in in-prison programming due to state or prison policies.
  • Many juveniles with life sentences change constructively during their incarceration when given the opportunity.


In the article, “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey,” Nellis looks into the history of juvenile life sentences. In 2012, there was a record high of juveniles serving life sentences, which most likely meant they would die in prison. Nellis collected survey data on 1,579 juvenile’s life experiences as well as details on life in prison from across the United States. The background of these juveniles showed high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, extreme racial disparities and sentencing that does not attempt rehabilitation.

View Full Research