NIJ Graduate Fellowship Program
Title: A Multilevel Analysis of Juvenile Life Without Parole and its Reform: Understanding the People, Places, and Politics that Shape Policy.
Abstract: Decarceration efforts in the era of mass incarceration have become a major policy concern. While many efforts center carceral policies for shorter, drug-related and nonviolent offenses, 62% of those incarcerated in the US were convicted of a violent offense and 63% are serving long-term sentences (Nellis, 2023). This dissertation seeks to examine decarceration efforts for a unique subgroup of long-term, violent offenders: those serving juvenile life without the possibility of parole (i.e., “juvenile lifers”). Juvenile lifers are here defined as individuals who were convicted of committing homicide crimes while they were minors (under 18) and who were sentenced to juvenile life without parole (JLWOP). Since 2012, a series of Supreme Court decisions and subsequent state policy changes have restricted the use of JLWOP. This project investigates JLWOP and its reform from three different analytical levels: the individual, the courtroom, and the state.
Study 1 of the dissertation utilizes in-depth interviews with juvenile lifers (n=<15) to explore how juvenile lifers navigate JLWOP, with a specific eye to how they transitioned to adulthood while incarcerated. Borrowing tenets of Black Feminist Theory (Richie, 2012) and person-centered policy analysis (Lewis & Maruna, 1998), this study grounds the research in the lived-experiences of those directly impacted by JLWOP.
Study 2 heeds Ulmer’s (2019) call for understanding the courtroom as an “inhabited institution,” one that both interprets and produces policy. While many states have been passing legislative statutes to limit JLWOP and resentence juvenile lifers to lesser terms, little is known about how these policies impact courtroom workgroups (Eisenstein and Jacob, 1977). To address this, Study 2 proposes analyzing transcripts and conducting field observations of JLWOP resentencing hearings across and within several counties in Michigan.
Study 3 explores national trends in reforming JLWOP. Preliminary evidence and existing scholarship make clear there is wide variation in how states have decided to comply with the Supreme Court rulings, as currently 33 states have banned JLWOP while the rest maintain its discretionary use. Using policy tracking and surveillance methods (Burris et al., 2016), this study will explore the conditions in which states banned JLWOP versus those in which states maintained its use.
Combined, these studies serve three goals: to provide a deeper understanding of how sentencing reforms are implemented and spread; to illuminate shifting punitive sentiments in both legal and political settings, especially as it pertains to youth offending; and to provide policy implications for future decarceration efforts. CA/NCF