As more states nationwide evaluate legislation to ban or reevaluate life sentences for juvenile offenders, new research published by a pair of Montclair State University faculty shows “juvenile lifers” who have been released are succeeding – and they point to potential policies that might make reentry more seamless.
The study, which will be published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law and which was conducted by Associate Professor of Justice Studies Tarika Daftary-Kapur, Associate Professor of Psychology Tina Zottoli and graduate assistants Tristin Faust and Ryan Schneider, surveyed 112 “juvenile lifers” who were released in Philadelphia within the past 30 months and documents their reentry experiences.
The results provide a window into the psychosocial risk factors these individuals were exposed to before incarceration and the barriers they faced upon reentry.
The data also expand on Daftary-Kapur and Zottoli’s previous research on the juvenile lifer population in Philadelphia, which showed a 1% recidivism rate among those who received early release on parole. Philadelphia has the highest number of juvenile lifers in the country, and has also been at the forefront of the resentencing movement, making it an ideal population for the team to study.
“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,” says Daftary-Kapur. “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.”
Early Life of Released Juvenile Lifers
The environments in which juvenile lifers found themselves as children were similar to that of many youth who engage in criminal offenses, according to the survey results.
More than 90% of respondents experienced five or more “psychosocial risk factors,” such as physical and emotional abuse, poor adult supervision, neglect or a parent who was involved in criminal activity.
Community risk factors were also prevalent, with 92% of respondents encountering neighborhood crime, 86% encountering neighborhood poverty and 85% encountering a neighborhood drug problem.
They also experienced education and peer-related challenges, with the majority of respondents reporting being suspended from school at least once, associating with delinquent peers and using drugs. Many were also involved with gangs.
“One of the more compelling results of our study was the extent to which early-life risk factors were associated with later reentry difficulties,” remarks Zottoli. “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.”
Reducing the Barriers to Reentry for Juvenile Lifers Through Policy Reform
While common variables were prevalent in terms of their childhood environments, similar universal themes existed in their prison experiences as well as their initial reentry.
More than half of study participants reported being barred from certain prison educational programs because of their sentences, including vocational programming such as barbering. These restrictions made it harder to find gainful employment. Although 75% were employed at the time of the survey, over half of respondents rated securing employment as challenging, with a quarter of respondents stating that lack of skills was a significant barrier to employment.
Factors rated as most helpful to reentry success were also rated as challenging to achieve, highlighting the disconnect between what is needed and what is attainable.
For example, although most had secured stable housing at the time of the survey, a quarter of the sample rated securing stable housing as the most challenging aspect of reentry.
While the majority of participants have overcome these early challenges, Daftary-Kapur and Zottoli recommend several policy reforms that, if implemented, might better prepare incarcerated people to reenter society and make an immediate impact upon their release.
“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,” says Daftary-Kapur. “Additionally, prison facilities could improve programs that help to facilitate and maintain family relationships, given that we know that family support is one of the most important factors in successful reintegration.
National Implications for Juvenile Lifer Legislation
The conversation surrounding juvenile lifers has shifted in the past 20 years, and the movement to abolish life sentences for juvenile offenders continues to gain momentum.
Since 2005, half the states in America have abolished juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole, with a new bill introduced in Wisconsin in December 2021 to end such sentences. Maryland abolished the sentence in 2021 and a recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision held youth must be evaluated for potential release after 20 years.
Daftary-Kapur and Zottoli hope their research, both on recidivism and reentry experiences of released juvenile lifers, will continue to inform the national conversation on second chances for youth serving lengthy sentences.
“The capacity for rehabilitation is, of course, only one of many factors that a society considers in determining its sentencing laws, but to the extent that life or virtual-life sentences for youth are justified on the basis of risk to public safety, the science is clear,” says Zottoli. “The vast majority of youth who commit crimes, even serious crimes, will not continue to offend as adults and persons who have served long sentences for violent crimes committed as youth pose negligible risk to society when they are released. Laws that require parole eligibility for young people are on strong empirical footing.”
To read the full policy briefing, click here. For more information on the Legal Decision Making Lab at Montclair State University, visit its website. Professor Daftary-Kapur can be reached at email@example.com and Professor Zottoli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.