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Report on Released Juvenile Lifers Shows Power of Child Wellness, Reentry Services as Crime Prevention Tools

PHILADELPHIA (April 7, 2022) – A new Montclair State University report on the largest population of juvenile lifers who have been released from prison reveals common childhood risk factors and reentry challenges that, if addressed by policymakers, could significantly reduce violent crime among children and young adults. “Reentry Experiences of Released Juvenile Lifers in Philadelphia,” published by Tarika Daftary-Kapur, Ph.D., and Tina Zottoli, Ph.D., of the Montclair Legal Decision Making Lab, finds household and family instability along with poverty and exposure to violence were the most common risk factors among this group of people sentenced to life imprisonment as children for homicide in Philadelphia courts. As older adults released after serving long sentences, these individuals largely overcame significant obstacles to re-entry and found stable housing and employment.

This study, supported by the Vital Projects Fund, is the first to focus on such a large concentration of released individuals sentenced to life for homicide, providing a unique opportunity to examine their reentry experiences and update and inform evidence-based policies on how to best prepare for, and support, returning citizens who have served long sentences. The report is also a follow-up to a 2020 study conducted by the same authors which found a 1.14% recidivism rate among juvenile lifers sentenced in Philadelphia. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional, and in 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana made juvenile lifers retroactively eligible for resentencing under Miller.

Up until these landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Pennsylvania had the largest population in the country of incarcerated juvenile lifers. Philadelphia had produced the largest population of juvenile lifers of any city in the world. At the time of the Montgomery decision, 521 juvenile lifers were incarcerated in Pennsylvania, with 325 sentenced in Philadelphia. Since then, 459 juvenile lifers, or 88%, have been resentenced in Pennsylvania across all counties — making Pennsylvania and Philadelphia national leaders in resentencing.  Just as Philadelphia had once been the driver of mass incarceration of juvenile lifers in the Commonwealth, so too has Philadelphia driven the mass resentencing and release of people sentenced to life imprisonment as children. Under the administration of District Attorney Larry Krasner, prosecutors recommended shorter sentences for juvenile lifers on average as compared with the prior administration, which began resentencing this population retroactively under 2016’s Montgomery.

In their 2020 study, “Resentencing of Juvenile Lifers: The Philadelphia Experience,” Daftary-Kapur and Zottoli estimate that decarceration of the 174 individuals released at that time would yield $9.5 million in correctional cost savings over the first decade. “[Individuals] serving long-term sentences for violent crimes make up more than half of the state-prison population and any effort to substantially reduce the costs of incarceration in the United States will have to grapple with this issue,” the report notes. Two years later, more than 300 Philadelphia juvenile lifers who had already served lengthy, often decades-long sentences have been resentenced, with approximately 224 released, while those remaining have appeals or Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petitions pending.

A survey to which 112 of the released Philadelphia juvenile lifers responded recorded information related to three periods of experience: life prior to incarceration, life during incarceration, and life after incarceration. The average age of respondents was 49 years old, and the average length of incarceration was 33 years. Nearly all are under court supervision in the form of lifetime parole. “Philadelphia took the lead in resentencing and release of juvenile lifers. They followed the science on adolescent development, and recommended release for those who had served lengthy sentences and demonstrated rehabilitation. This has paid off,” study author Dr. Daftary-Kapur said. “These individuals not only have negligible recidivism, but they are also engaged residents of their communities. Insight into their reentry experiences related to family connections, employment, housing and health – both the challenges and successes – can be used by policymakers to better inform reentry services for returning citizens.”

“The American criminal legal system has been too carceral for too long. The legacy of excessive and mass incarceration is generational cycles of violence and ongoing deprivation of public goods such as education and health care, which prevent crime and violence from occurring in the first place,” DA Krasner said. “This new Montclair State University study on Philadelphia’s juvenile lifers shows that even people who have committed very serious crimes are capable of change, and that offering second chances yields benefits to us all, beyond just those who are freed. In addition, the childhood experiences of this population are instructive for policymakers working on crime and violence prevention at every level of government.” While the 2020 study supported a substantial body of research showing very low recidivism among people who serve long sentences for serious violent offenses including homicide, the 2022 study shows that released Philadelphia juvenile lifers were largely able to overcome significant obstacles to reentry including employment and housing discrimination.

A 77% majority of juvenile lifer respondents were paroled to the home of a relative, friend, or spouse, while the remainder were paroled to some form of transitional housing. Most, or 91%, reported being housing stable, having moved once, twice, or not at all. A strong majority of 85% described their housing situation as either at or above their expectations, and 62% described their current housing situation as long term. This population of juvenile lifers was able to find stable, satisfactory housing, which nearly tied with family connectedness as being cited as most helpful to their successful reintegration into society. But 24% of respondents also cited finding housing as the most challenging for successful reentry, as compared with employment at 29%, obtaining state ID at 24%, connecting with family at 20%, and accessing educational opportunities at 20%. A strong majority of 65% reported that their criminal record was a barrier to finding employment – despite this population having been resentenced and released under authority of the U.S. Supreme Court and employment often being a condition of parole. “In our first study we were able to demonstrate that this population poses minimal to no risk to public safety; but recidivism is only one piece of the pie,” Dr. Daftary-Kapur said. “Here we provide insight into their reentry experiences related to family connections, employment, housing and health – both the challenges and successes – in the hopes that policymakers can use this information to better inform reentry services for returning citizens.”

“Given the trend toward decarceration, we might expect more states to abolish sentences of life without parole for juveniles and other populations, or to reduce the required length of time that must be served before parole eligibility. As such, it might be prudent to revise policies that restrict lifers and virtual lifers from educational and vocational programming,” Dr. Zottoli added. Risk factors associated with household instability dominated the early childhood experiences of Philadelphia juvenile lifers, decades ago for all surveyed. Just under two thirds were raised in a single parent household and/or experienced poverty, 69% experienced physical discipline at home, and 46% reported poor adult supervision as children. More than a third reported parents struggling with substance use disorder, 37% reported experiencing neglect, and 38% reported violence at home.

More than eight in 10 reported being suspended from school at least once, and 75% reported being exposed to delinquent peers. There were also strong correlations among Philly juvenile lifers with neighborhood risk factors: 85% reported the drug trade being a problem in their neighborhood, while 86% reported living in impoverished neighborhoods and 92% reported living in neighborhoods with high levels of crime. “One of the more compelling results of our study was the extent to which early-life risk factors were associated with later reentry difficulties,” Dr. Zottoli said. “Although this is correlational, it’s reasonable to think that this association might have been reduced if more attention were paid to the psychological needs these individuals had when they entered the system. The best rehabilitative programs for youth recognize that youth crime is often a symptom of a larger constellation of issues, including trauma.” “Jurisdictions across the Commonwealth and the United States should learn from the Philadelphia experience,” DA Krasner concluded. “The science is clear that most young people who commit even very serious crimes will age out of violent behavior, demonstrating that mandatory minimum sentences and sentences without parole eligibility serve no public safety purpose. Second chances restore lives and families, and benefit taxpayers and communities by allowing us to pour necessary resources into programs and services that allow all children to thrive.”

To learn more about this project and access research publications produced by or in collaboration with the DAO, visit data.philadao.com/Research. Watch interviews with the study authors, participating juvenile lifers, and DA Krasner here.

CONTACT:  Jane Roh, 215-686-8711, [email protected]

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The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for the prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually. Learn more about the DAO by visiting PhillyDA.org.