Life Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders: Public Sentiments

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The United States Supreme Court recently abolished mandatory life in prison without parole (LWOP) for juvenile offenders, holding that the practice is inconsistent with the eighth amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause, and its “evolving standards of decency” jurisprudence. The Court explicitly left open the question of whether nonmandatory LWOP is consistent with these constitutional standards. This article examines the public’s sentiment concerning juvenile LWOP. An online sample (n = 599) weighted to be representative of the U.S. population was queried about juvenile LWOP as a general policy and in response to a specific case in which they had to impose a prison sentence on a juvenile convicted of murder. The age of the juvenile was experimentally manipulated as either 12 or 16. Overall, 31% of participants favored juvenile LWOP as a general policy while 55% were willing to impose juvenile LWOP in a specific case. The age of the juvenile moderated this effect, such that participants were more willing to impose LWOP on a 16-year-old than a 12-year-old both as a general policy matter and in the specific case. A majority of participants were consistent in their preferred punishment across both the general and specific inquiries, including 30% who selected LWOP. Political affiliation was the only demographic variable that predicted consistency in preferred punishment. Additionally, participants who consistently endorsed juvenile LWOP placed greater emphasis on retribution and deterrence as goals of punishment while individuals who evidenced inconsistent punishment preferences placed a greater emphasis on rehabilitation.

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