The Marshall Project

What’s the Meaning of “Life” When Sentencing Kids?

The Supreme Court ended automatic life without parole for children. What replaces it remains unclear.

Say you’re a teenager who has committed a serious crime, and a judge is about to sentence you to prison for a very long time.

How long a sentence would the judge have to hand down for it to feel essentially the same as being sent to prison for life?

States have been wrestling with this question over the past decade in the wake of multiple U.S. Supreme Court rulings that automatically sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional, because kids have a unique ability to grow and change and therefore deserve a second chance down the road. That forced courts and legislatures to consider what number of years to hand down instead to the more than 2,000 current prisoners nationwide who were originally sentenced as juveniles to mandatory.

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