North Carolina

Dozens of NC juvenile offenders are serving life terms in prison. Should they get another chance?

From left to right, David Andrews with the N. C. Office of the Appellate Defender, Ben Finholt with the N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, Inc., and Democratic N.C. Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro sat on a Monday panel that discussed a Duke University law school report on juveniles facing life without parole in the state.
From left to right, David Andrews with the N. C. Office of the Appellate Defender, Ben Finholt with the N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, Inc., and Democratic N.C. Rep. Pricey Harrison of Greensboro sat on a Monday panel that discussed a Duke University law school report on juveniles facing life without parole in the state.

Corrected at 10:40 a.m. on Feb. 12. See details in story.

The number of North Carolina juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole has declined significantly in recent years, but a new report from Duke University calls for lesser sentences for the roughly 50 juveniles serving the punishment.

North Carolina is one of nine states that has imposed the bulk of life-without-parole sentence for juvenile offenders, according to the report from the university’s law school.

Since 1994, 94 people between the ages 13 and 17 have been sentenced to life without parole in the state. Of those, 41 have since received lesser sentences, 51 are currently serving their original sentences and at least one is awaiting a new trial, the report says.



Since 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court forbade sentences of mandatory life without parole for murder cases, five juveniles have faced that sentence in North Carolina, according to the report. (The year of the ruling has been corrected.)

N.C. Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who sat on a panel that discussed the report at Duke’s School of Law on Monday, said there “are enormous societal costs” to such sentences.

Research indicates that it costs about $2.25 million to to jail a juvenile offender for life, the report says. That compares to a $1 million contribution a juvenile could make as a productive member of society, Harrison said.

Harrison pointed to sections in the report that highlighted a growing body of research that indicates adolescent brain development progresses into a person’s 20s, and juveniles are still developing their decision-making skills.

Juveniles are also more vulnerable to outside pressures and wrongful convictions, the report says.

“Studies have found that juveniles are disproportionately represented among exoneration and specifically, exonerations that resulted from false confessions,” according to the report.

Panelists also pointed out that life-without-parole cases have resulted in protracted litigation, including many court hearings and rounds of appeals that require extensive research and paid experts.

The report, and those on the panel, also argued that life without parole takes rehabilitation and hope out of the equation.

Ben Finholt, a staff attorney with N.C. Prison Legal Services, said one of his clients who had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole received 99 infractions in prison. The client hasn’t committed another infraction since learning that a Supreme Court ruling allowed him to be re-sentenced.

“What this actually means on the ground to real human people, is it makes a massive, massive difference,” Finholt said.

Over the years, Supreme Court decisions have limited the circumstances under which juveniles can face life in prison without parole, Finholt said, but district attorneys continue to fight requests for re-sentencing.

“I don’t think that matches with what the U.S. Supreme Court has told us is supposed to happen,” he said.

The Supreme Court cases indicate that the sentence is “rare” and “should only be for exceptionally bad circumstances,” Finholt added.

Twenty-one states and Washington D.C. don’t permit sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles, the report says, while others have set up periodic reviews for juveniles who do face that punishment.

“In a time in which the juvenile LWOP sentencing has greatly declined, and prior sentences are being reversed at a high rate, the use of such sentences does not appear fair, warranted or consistent,” the report says. “Rather than impose rigid sentences on juveniles …alternatives that rely on periodic review of lengthy juvenile sentences should be considered.”

Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.
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