15 to Life

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

In Context

Sentencing a juvenile to life without parole is a relatively recent practice in the United States, and it almost never happened before the 1980s. Because there is no national database tracking youth serving adult sentences and the age at which an individual is considered an adult varies by state, the exact number of youth serving life without parole is not known. However, a study published in 2013 by the Sentencing Project estimates that more than 2,500 juvenile inmates are currently serving life without parole sentences, and 7,862 total inmates are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole for crimes committed before 18 years of age.

The Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act were established to provide regulations and protection for juvenile offenders and convicted youth who are tried as adults. Among other things, these dictate that youth may not be housed with adult inmates and when they are in common spaces they must either be kept from seeing and communicating with the adult inmates or have direct staff supervision while with adult inmates. As a result, however, juvenile inmates may be placed in isolation, or solitary confinement, as a safety measure. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, "The potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis." Additionally, many educational and reform programs for incarcerated youth face decreased funding, and more than 60 percent of juveniles with life sentences who responded to a survey taken in 2012 reported that they did not have access to these programs.


» National PREA Resource Center. "Youthful Inmates."

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

» The Sentencing Project. "The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey."