American Journal of Criminal Justice

, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 602-629

First online:

Sentencing Juvenile Offenders to Life in Prison: The Political Sociology of Juvenile Punishment

  • Jason T. CarmichaelAffiliated withMcGill University Email author 
  • , Giovani BurgosAffiliated withMcGill University

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Sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison is the most severe criminal penalty available, yet we know little about the factors that produce jurisdictional differences in the use of such sanctions. Political explanations emphasize conservative values and the strength of more conservative political parties. Threat accounts suggest that this sentence will be more likely in jurisdictions with larger minority populations. After controlling for many explanations using count models, the results show that larger numbers of juvenile life sentences are handed out in more politically conservative states with a stronger Republican Party. Findings also show that racial politics is a factor in juvenile life sentences. Those jurisdictions that have the most blacks and have judicial elections sentence the most juveniles to life terms. By highlighting the explanatory power of public ideologies, these findings support political explanations for the harshest criminal punishment directed towards juveniles.


Juvenile justice Juvenile incarceration Politics of punishment Life sentences