You could be forgiven for thinking that an organization called the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) would provide the public with accurate statistics from the states. But the group has put its credibility at risk by relying on bogus statistics on juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences from a group, Human Rights Watch, whose work in the area has been thoroughly discredited.
First, some background: As the co-author of “Adult Time for Adult Crimes: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Killers,” I have been studying the issue of JLWOP for years. JLWOP for juvenile killers is reasonable, constitutional, and (appropriately) rare. Forty-four states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government (including military courts) allow for JLWOP sentences for juvenile murderers tried in adult court. Used sparingly, this represents an overwhelming national consensus that JLWOP is, for the worst offenders, an effective, appropriate, and lawful punishment.
Nevertheless, radical anti-incarceration activists have sought to undermine the right of the people, acting through their state representatives, to impose this punishment in appropriate cases. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (AI/HRW) partnered in 2005 to co-author a bogus “study” that, among other misstatements, asserted that there were 2,225 juvenile felons serving LWOP sentences in the United States. Media outlets sympathetic to the anti-incarceration movement repeated that number for years without ever attempting to delve into the actual research.
“Adult Time for Adult Crimes” revealed serious flaws in their research methodology and proved that this number is simply wrong. The Department of Justice does not collect or have these statistics. State departments of correction often “lose” juveniles once they are tried in adult court and do not keep JLWOP statistics in a uniform or reliable manner. Worst of all, the AI/HRW report included 18- and 19-year-olds as “juveniles,” and its statistical assumptions were fatally flawed. Deep in their “study,” and stripped of manufactured statistics and bogus assumptions, the AI/HRW admits that they could only verify 1,291 actual juvenile offenders serving JWLOP in the United States. The bottom line: Since the states don’t know exactly how many juveniles are serving LWOP, no organization can state how many juveniles are serving JLWOP.
So I was rather surprised when, reading an otherwise thoughtful new law review article on JLWOP, I saw authors boldly assert, “As of 2010, there were 2445 juveniles serving life without parole sentences for homicides.” And what was the authority for that number? None other than a February 2010 report by the NCSL.
And what was NCSL’s source for the 2,445 number? Human Rights Watch, which happens to be the very same organization that manufactured 19-year-old “juveniles” for its “study.” If NCSL is serious about its credibility, it ought to find a better source for data on criminal justice and avoid quoting reports that have already been thoroughly discredited.