A Beginning to End Mass Incarceration: Montclair State University Professors Study the Release of Juvenile Lifers

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Published February 2, 2022
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The Montclarion
Dr. Tarika Daftary Kapur (left) and Dr. Tina Zottoli (right) speak about their findings on the resentencing of juvenile lifers. Photo courtesy of Dr. Tarika Daftary Kapur

There are many professors at Montclair State University who go above and beyond to research on the subjects they are passionate about. They dedicate years to their research, travel out-of-state and have a much larger goal than just obtaining information.

This is exactly what Dr. Tarika Daftary Kapur and Dr. Tina Zottoli did when studying juvenile lifers. Specifically studying people who were convicted of a crime before the age of 18 and were sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania back in 2019.

Kapur, an associate professor of justice studies and the principal investigator of “Resentencing of Juvenile Lifers: The Philadelphia Experience,” began her research when the Philadelphia District Attorney (DA) Office started resentencing juvenile lifers under the new administration of District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2018. Kapur and Zottoli went into the project intending to understand how the Juvenile Lifer Resentencing Committee decided to resentence offers, the differences between previous and current DA administrations and the results of juvenile lifers reintegrating into society.

“Our initial interest was in plea-bargaining practices in the District Attorney’s Office,” Kapur said. “So we had gone down to Philly to propose a project on plea bargaining and given that my interest and my background is in adolescent development, we just started talking about the juvenile lifers issue with District Attorney Krasner and that’s how it began.”

Since both professors were able to meet with Krasner, they were able to compare the two administrations in greater detail and found certain differences in what was considered when resentencing juvenile lifers. While both administrations compared similar factors, the previous administration considered the age of the defendant at the time of the original offense as well as whether the original offense was planned or not. The Krasner administration differed in considering prior convictions and the juvenile nature of the crimes.

“It was an exciting opportunity to be able to study the process and procedures of the Philadelphia [DA’s] office and be able to look at a change over time between a more traditional administration and a so-called progressive administration,” Zottoli said.

Despite being able to meet with Krasner, Kapur and Zottoli spent the majority of their time looking over the case files of the juvenile lifers that were being resentenced or were previously resentenced under the former district attorney administration. Both professors found that out of the 459 juvenile lifers resentenced, the average age at the time of the offense was 16 years old and about 90% of juvenile lifers participated in rehabilitative activities during incarceration.

Releasing juvenile lifers has stirred controversy amongst other states in terms of maintaining public safety. What might seem like a reasonable concern is countered by their research. The professors found that the rearrest rate of released lifers is 3.45% and that the majority of people who commit even serious crimes, age out of criminal behavior.

“Their [juvenile lifers] reintegration process was pretty positive,” Kapur said. “The majority of them had reconnected with at least one family member or close contact and about 80% of them had secured housing for themselves.”

Zottoli spoke about what it is like for those who are released,

“It was a bit of a culture shock for many of them,” Dr. Zottoli said. “You go into prison in the late 80s and early 90s and when you come out of prison, the world has changed dramatically in terms of technology and in other ways.”

With Philadelphia successfully resentencing over 88% of its juvenile lifers, it calls into question the benefits of continued incarceration. Despite many states considering and practicing resentencing juveniles, they are not as up to speed as Philadelphia.

“A lot of states are looking at this and it is being talked about across the country,” Kapur said. “It is because it’s expensive, it costs a lot of money to incarcerate individuals. We have a mass incarceration problem and now we also have a mass incarceration problem with geriatric incarcerated persons. The movement is coming from this realization that it’s really expensive and that’s taxpayer money.”

Releasing juvenile lifers in Philadelphia will save around $9.5 million in correctional costs in the first decade, especially since most of them are considered elderly. Annual costs of incarceration for elderly people double that of a younger incarcerated person.

“I do think it’s possible that many states will come to understand that the benefits might outweigh the negatives of considering opportunities for parole for individuals who commit crimes as young people,” Zottoli said.

Both Kapur and Zottoli have a publication coming out soon which focuses more closely on the reintegration of these released juvenile lifers as well as a look at public perceptions of life without parole sentences for juveniles.

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