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States reconsider life behind bars for youth

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The sentence is automatic for certain crimes in more than half of all states, part of a wave of "get tough" laws aimed at cracking down on rising crime rates during the 1980s and '90s. Which means judges often have little to no discretion when they mete out punishment. In many instances, they are prohibited from considering age or even whether the juvenile was the one who pulled the trigger. About a quarter of the juveniles serving life without parole sentences nationally were convicted of what is known as "felony murder," says Ms. Parker. They participated in a felony in which murder was committed, but they weren't the ones who did the actual killing.

In Illinois, that list includes Marshan Allen, a 15-year-old who accompanied an older brother and some friends on a drug-related mission, and says he didn't know they were going to kill several people.

In California, another state considering doing away with the sentence, it includes Anthony, a 16-year-old painting graffiti with a friend when the friend produced a gun and decided to rob an approaching group of teenagers. His friend pulled the trigger, but Anthony – who turned down a plea bargain because he couldn't imagine paying for a crime he didn't feel he'd committed – got a life-without-parole sentence.

"There are people in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles that should never see the light of day," says Rich Klawiter, a partner at the law firm DLA Piper and part of the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children, which produced a report on the issue last month and advocates reform. "But those that show themselves worthy of redemption ought to be given an opportunity before a parole board."

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