By: Stacy M. Brown / NNPA

In a stunning revelation, a newly released report by The Sentencing Project brings to light the plight of emerging adults aged 25 and younger sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) in the United States.

The study examined the cases of nearly 30,000 individuals sentenced between 1995 and 2017.

It exposed the harsh reality faced by these young offenders deprived of a second chance despite their diminished capacity during their offenses.

The report highlights the case of William Florentino, who, at the age of 20, received an LWOP sentence in Massachusetts for his involvement in a robbery that ended in murder.

Despite not being the triggerman, a jury convicted Florentino of first-degree murder and armed robbery under the felony murder doctrine.

After spending 46 years behind bars, Florentino is elderly and has shown immense personal growth, earned a college degree, and become a trusted resident within the prison community.

His story exemplifies the urgent need to reevaluate the justice system’s treatment of young offenders.

The study emphasizes that the current legal framework, which treats individuals aged 18 and older as adults, needs to recognize the unique phase of human development known as emerging adulthood.

The report, which draws from scientific research in neuroscience, sociology, and psychology, asserts that most individuals fully mature into adulthood in their mid-twenties.

Therefore, the arbitrary age of 18 as the threshold for full criminal accountability overlooks the developmental realities faced by emerging adults.

Disturbingly, the report reveals that, at the time of sentencing, two in five individuals sentenced to LWOP between 1995 and 2017 were 26 or younger.

States such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and California saw nearly half of their LWOP sentences imposed on individuals under 26.

Alarmingly, the peak age at conviction was 23, which firmly falls within emerging adulthood.
Furthermore, the study highlights the racial disparities within the system, indicating that two-thirds of young individuals sentenced to LWOP were Black, underscoring the disproportionate impact of extreme sentences on Black Americans.

The report notes that many states have begun to acknowledge the unique attributes of emerging adulthood and have introduced legislative reforms or jurisprudential restrictions to address the issue.

The researchers noted that the reforms could provide a second look at prison sentences for young offenders, considering their diminished capacity at the time of the offense.

Ashley Nellis, Co-Director of Research at The Sentencing Project, and lead author of the report, criticized the outdated view that brain development is complete by age 18.

She called for overhauling the criminal legal system to ensure fair and just treatment of emerging adults who, despite committing severe crimes, possess immense potential for growth and rehabilitation.

“Our criminal legal system relies on an outdated and unscientific view that brain development is complete at age 18,” Nellis stated.

“Emerging adults share many key developmental characteristics with adolescents under age 18. Despite their serious crimes, these individuals have tremendous potential for growth and opportunity.”

The authors issued a list of recommendations to urgently address the issue.
It proposes eliminating the use of LWOP for emerging adults and imposing a sentence cap of 15 years for individuals aged 25 and younger.

The authors also advocated for periodic reviews within the first ten years of sentencing for young offenders and the consideration of individual circumstances in determining appropriate sentences.

The Sentencing Project joined several national organizations in calling for a reorientation of the justice system, emphasizing punishments proportionate to the crime committed and the offender’s culpability.

“By implementing these reforms, society can foster a more equitable and humane approach to criminal justice, offering hope and opportunities for redemption to young individuals caught in the grip of the legal system,” the authors concluded.