Sentencing and Detention of Youth in Adult Prisons: Legality, Litigation and Psychological Consequences - Policies Regarding the Incarceration of Youth in Adult Facilities

Document Type


Publication Date


Conference / Event Title

34th International Congress on Law and Mental Health

Conference / Event Location

Vienna, Austria

Hosting Organization

International Academy of Law and Mental Health (IALMH)


Most countries prohibit both capital punishment and life without parole (LWOP) for those below the age of 18. Surprisingly, the U.S. only recently abolished the death penalty for youth: initially for those 15 and younger (Thompson v. Oklahoma, 1988) and then for those 16 and 17 years of age (Roper v. Simmons, 2005). However, 42 states have the option of imposing LWOP for youth – and in 27 states mandatory sentencing policies restrict judicial discretion. Prior to the late 1980’s any charge against a youth under 17 had to be filed in juvenile court and sanctions were served in the juvenile system. This changed and prosecutors could request a transfer from juvenile to adult court, bypassing judicial oversight through automatic waivers for certain offenses. This frequently left limited sentencing options resulting in an increase in sentences of LWOP within adult facilities. In a review of 154 countries only three countries (South Africa, Israel and Tanzania) had LWOP policies. However, in contrast to the more than 2,500 affected persons in the U.S., there were a total of 12 persons sentenced to LWOP in those 3 countries. Most states have a minimum age at which this sentence can be given, however in 14 states, there is no minimum age at which juveniles can be tried as adults and sent to prison for natural life.