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50-state investigation reveals arbitrary patchwork of justice for juvenile lifers

This combination of photos shows shows younger and older photos of "juvenile lifers," top row from left, William Washington, Jennifer M. Pruitt and John Sam Hall; middle row from left, Damion Lavoial Todd, Ahmad Rashad Williams and Evan Miller; bottom row from left, Giovanni Reid, Johnny Antoine Beck and Bobby Hines. During the late 1980 and into the 1990s, many states enacted laws to punish juvenile criminals like adults and the U.S. became an international outlier, sentencing offenders under 18 to live out their lives in prison for crimes including homicide, rape, kidnapping and armed robbery. (Michigan Department of Corrections, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Lawrence County Alabama Sheriff's Office, Alabama Department of Corrections via AP)

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After the U.S. Supreme Court told states that juveniles who had been given mandatory life without parole sentences should get the chance to argue for their release, national writers Sharon Cohen and Adam Geller wanted to know how judges, prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards were dealing with the inmates.

Aided by reporters in all 50 states, their exhaustive investigation showed for the first time that the high court’s mandate in 2016 to give inmates a chance at freedom is being applied inconsistently, varying from state to state, even county to county, “in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.”

Some states resentenced and released dozens. Geller and Cohen also found that other states delayed reviewing cases, or “skirted the ruling on seeming technicalities or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.”

The resulting three-day series featured deeply reported text stories, an expansive photo report of inmates from across the country, a 16-minute audio extra, a video animation on teen brain development, a video story, and a searchable trove of state-by-state details – all hosted in a dynamic hub on APNews.com.

Cohen and Geller’s work wins this week’s Beat of the Week prize.

For decades, many states passed laws that punished juveniles like adults, sentencing them to spend the rest of their lives in prison for homicide. Then, five years ago, the Supreme Court banned such mandatory sentences and, last year, went further by instructing states to give inmates a chance to show they were rehabilitated.

With little state-level data available, Cohen and Geller scoured court and prison records and reviewed old trial transcripts. Reporters in all 50 states helped fill in the gaps. The result: a state-by-state inventory of juvenile lifers.

Very soon into their reporting, Cohen and Geller hit roadblocks.

Advocacy groups were unable to provide a state-by-state breakdown of the number of lifers and often declined to identify any lifers by name, fearing they would jeopardize their chances at resentencing and release. As Cohen and Geller began scouring court and prison records and reviewing decades-old trial transcripts, project editors Pauline Arrillaga and Chris Sullivan enlisted reporters in all 50 states to help fill in the gaps.

The result was a one-of-a-kind inventory of the numbers of juvenile lifers in each state, recent legislative action and a glimpse at whether states were taking steps to address these cases – or pushing back. Producer Maureen Linke turned it into a searchable interactive that was featured on the APNews.com hub.

Juliet Linderman joined the team to produce a piece examining how the ruling has affected far more than those inmates serving mandatory sentences, expanding on early reporting she’d done for her state separate.

The series also stood out for its digital and visual journalism.

Working closely with Cohen and Geller,photo editor Patrick Sison gathered up before-and-after photos of the inmates, juxtaposing youthful mugshots with ones from more recent years that helped show how the one-time juvenile offenders have aged in prison. They were coupled with striking photos of former juvenile offenders by Matt Rourke in Philadelphia and Paul Sancya and Carlos Osorio in Detroit.

Video journalist Mike Householder in Detroit produced a video piece that included an emotional courtroom hearing for a juvenile offender and interviews in Pennsylvania with the granddaughters of man killed by a juvenile lifer and a doctor who’s an expert on the teen brain. He also included an interview gathered by video journalist Allen Breed in North Carolina that introduced viewers to an inmate still hoping to make a case for release.

From early on,Arrillaga enlisted digital storytelling editor Raghu Vadarevu to help identify opportunities that could add depth to the project.

Working with Cohen,Geller and science writer Malcolm Ritter,Vadarevu collaborated with animators Peter Hamlin,Marshall Ritzel and Darrell Allen to pull together an animation to explain the development of the teenage brain and the impact on decision-making – based on research that played a role in the Supreme Court’s decisions.

Vadarevu and West digital producer Samantha Shotzbarger worked with Geller to combine his narrative storytelling skills with a new format: audio. The result was a 16-minute audio extra focusing on Earl Rice Jr. who had been recently released, Rice’s acceptance of responsibility for the death of a woman whose purse he stole and his adjustment to life on the outside. Shotzbarger also made shorter audio clips that were embedded into the text on the hub; a customer also featured them on its website.

Vadarevu, Shotzbarger and Nerve Center producer Trenton Daniel for the first time pulled together a promo hub on APNews.com,shared with readers before the package launch via tweets. It featured an “About the Series” description,“Coming Tuesday” and “Coming Wednesday” cards to spotlight upcoming stories,and bios of the reporting team of Cohen, Geller and Linderman.

“This is clearly among the best journalism AP has done this year.” – Managing Editor Brian Carovillano

“Great reporting that breaks news,strong writing,wonderful photos and video,and an immersive presentation that provides by far the best hub experience of the AP News era,” Managing Editor Brian Carovillano said. “This is clearly among the best journalism AP has done this year, and it stands out as something really distinctive and special in this summer of White House chaos.”

Director of Global Enterprise Marjorie Miller called the project “an important public service.”

Montgomery Front

The series won widespread attention,garnering front-page play in dozens of newspapers. Reporters nationwide also saw front-page play of their sidebars in many of the biggest papers in their states. Average engaged time on APNews ranged from 1.30 on the mainbar to over two minutes on the second-day piece.

The package was retweeted by The Marshall Project and ProPublica, and received coverage by NPR stations across the nation. Geller was interviewed on “All Things Considered.” PRI’s “The Takeaway” hosted a two-day report on the series,featuring both Cohen and Geller as well as recently released offender Earl Rice.

Advocacy groups are using the series to call for more Supreme Court action to prevent what some call “geographic justice.”

For shining a light on a justice system that’s both slow and inconsistent in giving one-time juvenile offenders a chance to make a case for their release, Cohen and Geller win this week’s Beat of the Week $500 prize.

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