Social Welfare chair Laura Abrams has received a grant of $860,000 to lead an extensive national study of young people sentenced to life in prison who are ultimately given a chance at freedom.
The three-year study, funded by the Houston-based philanthropy Arnold Ventures, aims to build a base of knowledge that supports safe and equitable sentencing and “second-look” policies for people sentenced to life for offenses committed before they were 18 years old. Many have spent years or decades behind bars.
“This research seeks to answer critical policy questions,” Abrams said. “Can we develop a set of evidence-informed policies that provide second chances for people serving long sentences for violent crimes? Can we reduce our overreliance on long sentences in the future without compromising public safety?”
Abrams and an interdisciplinary team of scholars from across the country will focus on a subset of the “lifer” population — the roughly 2,800 people who were convicted of homicide as minors after being tried in adult criminal courts.
Harsh sentences of youth convicted of violent offenses increased dramatically during the “tough on crime” 1980s and 1990s, but two U.S. Supreme Court rulings over the past 10 years held that mandatory life sentences for minors are unconstitutional. This paved the way for the release of hundreds of people.
Working with data collected by the nonprofits the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and the Sentencing Project, Abrams and her colleagues will track those who have been freed as well as those who remain incarcerated to determine whether releases are conducted equitably. They will also assess the level of preparation for reentry into the community and the risk of a return to criminal behavior.
The team includes experts from UCLA, University of Cincinnati, Johns Hopkins University, University of Michigan, Northwestern University and Temple University, representing disciplines such as social work, human development and behavior, public health and criminology.
While the research will focus on those incarcerated as minors, the findings can be used as a foundation for broader reforms of sentencing and second-chance policies.
“This study has strong potential to inform policies related to the over 50% of U.S. prisoners serving sentences of 10 years or more,” Abrams said.