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Assessing Risk in Juvenile Lifers: How Much Does History and In-Prison Behavior Matter?

by Kathy Gnall

November 5, 2018

Among all states, Pennsylvania has the highest number of adult prisoners who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for murders committed in their teen years. Numbering 518, with more than half sentenced from Philadelphia County, 317 of PA’s Juvenile Lifers have been resentenced as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana (data as of September 2018 from PA Department of Corrections website heading “juvenile lifers”). PA Department of Corrections data also shows that 151 juvenile lifers have been granted parole by the PA Board of Probation and Parole as of September 2018.

In the last post, I briefly described the backgrounds of the juvenile lifers whom I’ve gotten to know both through records dating back to their childhoods, and through in-person meetings with them in prison. One of the purposes of my review was to consider the risk each offender posed to the outside community should he be resentenced to a prison term allowing for parole consideration.

There are several actuarial risk and needs instruments validated and normed for prison populations. However, juvenile lifers are very different than the “average” prison inmate. State prison inmates by and large are men sentenced to confinement for crimes they committed at age 18 and beyond. Their convictions often come with a relatively short prison sentence with many returning to the community in less than 3 years, sometimes in much less time than that. Juvenile lifers, on the other hand, committed the most serious crime, murder, as kids and most, including all the juvenile lifers I met, have been continuously incarcerated for at least two decades, with some incarcerated for four decades.

Historical or static factors such as living in a high crime neighborhood, having poor school performance especially being suspended from school, and past drug use are among the strongest predictors of future behavior and as such are found on actuarial risk and needs tools. Historical factors would seem to be very important for juvenile lifers as well, certainly as it pertained to this group becoming involved in crime in the first place. But how relevant are the historical variables for understanding the future risk of now adult men locked up in prison for dozens of years, many before they turned the magic “now you’re an adult” age of 18? And even if the scientific evidence that history is very predictive holds up for this group, are the historical variables taken together the same strength for prediction purposes as they were when the person committed the crime for which he is incarcerated? I would argue that the relevancy of the historical variables for prediction diminishes over time and what matters more for determining risk in this population is 1. Current age and 2. How they have behaved in prison during their incarceration.

On the latter point, I found it noteworthy how many of the juvenile lifers I came to know had a “mixed bag” when it came to their in-prison conduct. Most often, their early years in prison were marked by attitude, a lack of cooperation with staff, a reluctance or outright refusal to participate in education and treatment programs and several disciplinary infractions ranging from less serious charges to assaults or fights. But even for those whose prison records showed violence early on, remarkable changes did indeed happen. Some juvenile lifer records revealed a decade or more of positive adjustment, with no disciplinary infractions, good work and housing reports and compliance with treatment plans coming on the heels of a decade or more of what is sometimes labeled “marginal adjustment.”. This is remarkable, especially given the starting point for many of these inmates.

From a scientific perspective, I don’t know if “performance in prison” will have the same strength of relationship to future recidivism that recent behavior in the free community does, but in the case of juvenile lifers all you have really is their in-prison behavior, level of social supports and preparation for reentry. Through working with this population, I’ve come to question whether historical variables, especially those that come from a person’s childhood, continue to have the same level of relevancy to the future prediction of risk, throughout a person’s lifetime. The historical factors on actuarial tools always have the same weight in prediction whether the tool is administered to a person who is 20 or 50. I don’t know that that makes sense but I don’t think that our assessment practices are refined and nuanced enough yet to take these into account. But age, the most powerful of all predictors, that I think you can bank on.

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