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“Black First, Children Second”: Why Juvenile Life Without Parole Violates the Equal Protection Clause

By Avery Katz. Full Text.

The United States is the only country in the world that allows imposition of juvenile life without parole (LWOP) sentences. This sentencing scheme was born out of the 1990’s “tough on crime” era, when society held the belief that juvenile offenders were “super-predators” and should face adult time for adult crimes. Throughout the years, the Supreme Court has faced numerous cases regarding juvenile LWOP, leading to its 2021 Jones v. Mississippi decision, holding that juveniles may be sentenced to LWOP so long as “youthful qualities,” such as immaturity, recklessness, susceptibility to negative influence, are first considered in sentencing. Today, the LWOP sentence remains available for juveniles based on the court’s discretion.

Juvenile LWOP is problematic due to both its ignorance of modern child psychology research and its discriminatory effects on Black juveniles. This Note combines these issues to bring forth a disparate impact claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. While disparate impact claims rarely prevail in the judicial system, this constitutional framework provides significant support for legislators to act urgently to abolish juvenile LWOP.

There are two substantive issues with juveniles LWOP under the Equal Protection Clause. First, the consideration of transient “youthful qualities” does not adequately represent the full spectrum of juvenile development and criminal disposition according to modern neuropsychology research. Factors such as brain maturity, environmental trauma, and resilience are crucial in understanding children’s ability for rehabilitation. Second, juvenile LWOP is disproportionately imposed on Black juveniles based on implicit biases and racial stereotyping. When analyzing juvenile LWOP using strict scrutiny for a disparate impact claim, the sentence serves no compelling governmental interest because it is based on an incomplete set of neuropsychological data. This Note analyzes the disparate impact claim in detail and concludes that the only solution is to categorically abolish juvenile LWOP. Thirty-two states have already categorically abolished the sentence, showing that most local state legislators support this position. This constitutional argument provides ample support for legislators to act urgently in abolishing juvenile LWOP permanently in all fifty states.