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Appendix B: Note on Statistical Methods

When commencing our research for this report, Human Rights Watch discovered that, while the U.S. Department of Justice uses FBI crime statistics to compile data on juvenile crime, and the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention compiles data on children in the juvenile justice system, there are no data compiled on child offenders in the adult system. Most states tend to “lose” the fact that an offender was a child at the time of his or her crime once he or she is admitted to adult prison. Consequently, publicly available state reports on incarcerated populations often give the impression that there are no youth offenders in adult prison (or only track individuals by age at admission) and do not offer information about a particular inmate’s age at the time of his or her offense.

We find it striking that legislators who passed the laws allowing children to be sentenced to life without parole, governors, state correctional authorities, judges and lawyers, to say nothing of the general public, have had no access to statistical information about the child offenders sentenced to life without parole in their states. Therefore, two primary recommendations of this report are that all state departments of corrections keep accurate statistics about child offenders in adult prisons, including the numbers of individuals sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as children, and that the federal government establish and maintain a central depository for this data.

Prior to the collaboration with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch began conducting statistical research with the hope that the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) would provide the nationwide data we sought on child offenders sentenced to life without parole. The NCRP’s objective is to provide a consistent and comprehensive description of prisoners entering and leaving state and federal custody. To accomplish this goal, annual data are gathered from official state prison records on topics such as race, sex, and age of inmates; length of time in jail; length of time in prison; and type of offense committed. The data are collected from the state prison systems of most of the United States, as well as the Federal Prison System, the California Youth Authority, and the District of Columbia.

Unfortunately, the NCRP was not a comprehensive source for the data we sought for at least two reasons. First, the NCRP data revealed youth offenders serving life without parole in only the following states: Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky (data from 1980s before eradication of the sentence for juveniles), Maine (data from 1980s before eradication of the sentence), Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon (data from 1990s before eradication of the sentence for juveniles), Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wyoming. Whereas we knew that offenders were serving the sentence in additional states, e.g., Florida. Second, the number of youth serving life without parole according to NCRP data differed from the numbers we had gathered directly from some states, e.g., Michigan. Although these two flaws caused us to reject the NCRP data as a source for our national count of youth serving life without parole, we decided to use the available data as a sample, which we analyzed for information we did not request from state departments of corrections, such as the rates of imposition of the life without parole sentence on adult and child murder offenders.We have no basis for believing that the data available in the NCRP is skewed in any particular way that would cause such analyses to be inaccurate.

In late 2003, Human Rights Watch began gathering data directly from the federal government and the departments of corrections in the forty-one states that sentenced children to life without parole at the time of our research. (As noted previously, Texas changed its laws to allow for the sentence in May of 2005.) Our first step was to send letters to all fifty states asking them to send us data on children who committed crimes that resulted in life without parole or very long sentences (i.e., life sentences plus a term of years—“life plus years”).354 In the interest of clarity, we eventually eliminated these long sentence data from our analysis. Therefore, this report only analyzes data relating to children serving the exact sentence of life without parole in the United States (with the exception of Pennsylvania).

Many state departments of corrections do not keep records on an inmate’s age at the time he or she committed an offense but only record an individual’s age at the time of admission to prison. For those states that claimed they had no data on inmates’ ages at offense, we chose to use an age cut-off of nineteen years old at the date of admission as a way to capture all inmates that likely committed their crimes before the age of eighteen. We chose to use nineteen because we assumed that between one and two years could pass between a seventeen-year-old’s commission of a crime and his or her arrest, trial, possible subsequent trials (as a result of a hung jury or a mistrial), sentencing, and ultimate admission to prison.355

Many states were prompt and very helpful in their responses. Human Rights Watch received data from thirty-five states and the federal government. Although we requested data through the end of 2002, most states simply counted the number of youth offenders serving life without parole in state custody on the date at which they ran the query; therefore, some state datasets include information through mid-2004. From the federal government, Vermont, New Jersey, and Utah, we received responses indicating that, although life without parole is possible in those states, no one is currently serving the sentence for an under-eighteen crime. However, after we received the response from the federal government, we were contacted by one youth offender, who was fifteen at the time of his crime and is serving life without parole in the federal system for his role as a lookout in a conspiracy to commit murder.356

Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana, and Virginia informed Human Rights Watch that they were unable to gather statistics for us because of staffing limitations and prohibitive costs. We obtained data for these states through other measures, with the exception of Idaho, for which we have no figures. Human Rights Watch noted that it had received fifteen letters from inmates in Alabama who claimed they were serving life without parole for crimes committed before they turned eighteen. Since Alabama has an on-line inmate locator service, we were able to confirm the sentences and basic biological characteristics of these individuals through cross-checking on-line. Although we therefore cite Alabama as having fifteen child offenders serving life without parole, that figure may well be an undercount. We used a statistical extract from the reports made by the state of Virginia to the National Corrections Reporting Program between the years 1983and 2000 to gather a rough number of individuals serving the sentence in that state. Amnesty International obtained data directly from the Louisiana Department of Corrections with the assistance of Clive Stafford Smith and the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center.

Finally, Human Rights Watch did not receive replies from the state departments of corrections in Michigan and Illinois. Follow-up phone calls and letters were sent throughout the spring and summer of 2004, to no avail. However, Deborah Labelle, director, and Anna Phillips, research coordinator, of the American Civil Liberties Union Juvenile Life without Parole Initiative in Michigan, had already received data from the Michigan and Illinois departments of corrections in response to requests they had submitted earlier, following criteria very similar to those used by Human Rights Watch. They shared the data they had obtained with us for the purposes of this report.

[354] See Appendix C for an example of the letters sent to state departments of corrections.

[355] For example, an individual who was 17.9 at the time of his or her crime could spend as little as 13 months in the arrest to sentencing stage before entering prison. An individual who was 17.0 at the time of his or her crime could spend as much as two years in the arrest to sentencing stage before entering prison. The problem with using age nineteen at admission as the cut-off for our analysis, however, are those cases of eighteen or nineteen-year-old offenders sentenced to life without parole who may be included in the dataset. It is also possible that someone who committed their crime at 17.0 entered prison after he or she turned twenty, in which case he or she would not have been included in the dataset. After conducting sampling analyses in a few key states however, we determined that nineteen was the most accurate age cut-off we could choose.

[356] See Letter to Human Rights Watch from Jose A., United States Penitentiary Allenwood, White Deer, Pennsylvania; February 11, 2003 (pseudonym) (on file with Human Rights Watch); “Man sentenced to 50 years in prison in compliance with plea deal,” Associated Press, April 26, 2000; “Four gang members get life in Yonkers killing,” Associated Press, December 14, 2000.

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