It’s time to end eternal punishment for young adults 

We should ban sentences of life without parole for young offenders

DIRCEU SEMEDO is in his 31st year of a life sentence in Massachusetts. Nearly 50 years old now, at age 18 he participated in an assault that resulted in a death. Semedo and four others were convicted of first-degree murder, though only one of the individuals (not Semedo) inflicted the fatal stab wound. In Massachusetts, one can be convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to the state’s mandatory sentence of life without parole (LWOP) even if their involvement in the murder was indirect.  

LWOP became an increasingly popular sentence in late 1980s and through the 1990s as states ratcheted up their tough-on-crime postures. LWOP assumes no possibility of redemption or personal transformation and is especially egregious when imposed on young people. In The Sentencing Project’s latest research, which analyzes 70 percent of these sentences imposed between 1995 and 2017, we find that an estimated two of every five LWOP sentences were imposed on people 25 and younger. 

Sentencing a young adult to spend the remainder of their life in prison denies the established neuroscience showing crucial levels of impulse control and maturity are not achieved until at least the mid-20s. This period of emerging adulthood shares more characteristics with youth under 18 than with fully matured adults. Brain science and “life-course” research that tracks people over several decades confirms that young adults can and do mature out of terrible decisions, even those involving criminal acts. 

But our criminal legal system is not aligned with this psychological evidence. 

In a series of Supreme Court cases, the justices determined 18 to be the age under which most LWOP sentences violate the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments. The reasoning was based on neuroscientific arguments that younger people operate with a diminished capacity to comprehend the consequences of their actions and exercise restraint. Massachusetts’s high court was quick to follow as one of the first states to correct, both prospectively and retroactively, the unconstitutional use of all LWOP sentences for youth under age 18 (Diatchenko v. District Attorney). As a result, an estimated 63 people destined for death in prison have been given the opportunity for parole. 

Most courts have thus far limited age considerations to people under 18 at the time of a crime even though ages 18 to 25 represent a critical, fluid stage of life between childhood and adulthood called “emerging adulthood.” Semedo’s case illustrates the arbitrariness of the 18-year-old age cut-off. If he had been born just six months earlier, he would have benefitted from the Diatchenko ruling, as two of the five defendants did.  

His crime included many of the hallmarks of crimes committed by young people: his involvement was spontaneous and emotionally charged and made while under the influence of older peers as well as having been inebriated at the time of his decision to follow along with his peers’ idea. His time in prison also follows a typical pattern as well: over his decades of imprisonment, he has maintained consistent employment, become a deeply religious man, volunteered, completed numerous educational and programming opportunities, and is widely viewed as a mentor to many–both younger prisoners and at-risk youth. Moreover, he is deeply remorseful for his involvement in the crime and has made earnest amends. 

The Supreme Judicial Court is poised to rule in another case on the appropriateness of sentencing people who were between 18 and 21 years old at the time of their offense. If it rules in favor of the plaintiff, Sheldon Mattis, who was 18 at the time of his crime, an estimated 200 people currently serving LWOP for crimes committed in their late adolescence, including Semedo, could receive an opportunity for parole.  

The racial dynamics at play in extreme sentences cannot be overlooked. The Sentencing Project’s study finds that a shocking two thirds of young people sentenced to LWOP are Black (including Semedo). At the time of his crime, the media was blatantly contributing to racist portrayals of Black people through racially charged descriptors like savage, animalistic, and superpredator. These misrepresentations of Black people have surely contributed to the high representation of them in our prisons, especially when we look at those with the harshest penalties.   

Meet the Author
It’s time for our criminal legal system to catch up to both science and common sense. Extending the reasoning from Diatchenko to this older category of youth is the right place to start. 

Ashley Nellis is a life imprisonment scholar and co-director of research at The Sentencing Project in Washington, DC. She is coauthor with Marc Mauer of The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences.