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An Investigation Into Juvenile Life Without Parole


The Supreme Court says it is unconstitutional for juveniles to serve mandatory life sentences without parole. They call it cruel and unusual punishment. The justices issued that ruling five years ago and clarified last year that it also applies to thousands of people already serving time. The Associated Press decided to find out whether states are following that directive. Reporters conducted an investigation across all 50 states, and they've been publishing their findings as a series this week. Adam Geller is one of the reporters on the story. Welcome to the program.

ADAM GELLER: Thanks very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: So what did you find?

GELLER: We found there are more than 2,000 of these juvenile life cases around the country. And what is perhaps surprising is even after a really pretty sweeping ruling by the Supreme Court that these cases need to be revisited and that these offenders, unless they are deemed to be the worst of the worst, need to be offered some meaningful chance for release. That even after that sweeping ruling, that there are very different brands of justice around the country. That some states are really wrestling with these cases in a very active way and are beginning to release offenders, and others are quite reluctant to do so.

SHAPIRO: So give me an example of what the situation is in one state that stands out to you.

GELLER: Let me talk about two. These are the states with the two largest numbers of inmates who are serving mandatory life without parole who - convicted of juvenile crimes. Those are Pennsylvania, which has more than 500 of those inmates, and Michigan, which has about 360. Pennsylvania has - judges have been working their way through these cases and have now resentenced more than 100 people. That's over - about a year. And close to 60 of them have been released. Meanwhile in Michigan, which has about, as I said, 360 cases, local prosecutors have gone through the cases. And in about two-thirds of the cases they are recommending that these inmates be resentenced again to the same sentence, to a life without parole.

SHAPIRO: Given that the Supreme Court didn't say everybody fitting this description needs to be released, is it inevitable that different judgments in different states are going to lead to different results? In some states people will remain behind bars, in other states they won't.

GELLER: You're probably right. It is inevitable. The U.S. justice system has always been a very local system. And certainly the standards for law enforcement and law and order are different in different parts of the country. But the court was not telling jurisdictions specifically how they needed to go at this, although they were pretty specific. But they were pretty particular in saying, you need to reserve this very tough punishment, sending somebody to prison for the rest of their life even though they're a teenager now - you need to reserve that punishment only for people who are deemed to be the worst of the worst, who are beyond change, who can never be different than the teenager who did this terrible thing.

SHAPIRO: You looked at what it's like for a person who was sentenced to life without parole in their teens to finally be released perhaps in their 60s. Tell me about the challenges that some of these people face.

GELLER: It is really something to talk with mostly these men. You've been in prison since you were 15 or 16 or 17. You start to appreciate the importance to each of them of finding people they can trust and returning that trust. The one that comes to mind is a gentleman released from a Louisiana prison at the end of last year. And he's back home now caring for his mother with Alzheimer's. And when he talks about it, you can really hear this sense of fulfillment in his voice. There's a meaning that's been added that he just didn't have for all those years.

SHAPIRO: Adam Geller, thank you very much.

GELLER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: He's one of the AP reporters behind the investigation into juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Consideredgrew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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