15 to Life

PBS Premiere: Aug. 4, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

The juvenile justice system does not allow youth to be sentenced to life without parole. In order for a juvenile to receive a life sentence, his or her case must first be transferred to an adult criminal court. Every state allows for this transfer, but the age at which an individual is considered an adult is dependent on location and circumstances. From 1985 to 1994, when politicians were using slogans such as "adult time for adult crime," the number of juvenile cases transferred to adult criminal courts nearly doubled, from 7,200 to 13,200 cases. In 2007, nearly 14,000 juvenile cases were reported to be transferred to adult criminal court. However, this total includes only cases in the 13 states that publicly report their transfers—29 additional states also transfer youth cases to adult criminal court every year. The actual number of cases transferred is estimated to be around 250,000. Kenneth Young's state, Florida, has the highest number of juveniles tried as adults and in a five-year period leading up to 2014, 60 percent of the juveniles in the state who were transferred to adult criminal court were charged with non-violent offenses.


» Human Rights Watch. "Branded for Life: Florida's Prosecution of Children as Adults Under its 'Direct File' Statute."

» The Sentencing Project. "Life Goes On: The Historic Rise in Life Sentences in America."

» U.S. Department of Justice. "Trying Juveniles as Adults: An Analysis of State Transfer Laws and Reporting."

» U.S. Department of Justice. "You're an Adult Now: Youth in Criminal Justice Systems."