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We may hear about juvenile offenders when they commit a crime and, again, when they're sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. But we don't know much about what happens after the prison gates slam shut. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, for the first time, researchers are starting to fill in the blanks after surveying more than a thousand young inmates.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The U.S. is the only country that sentences juveniles to life without the chance of release. Ashley Nellis surveyed nearly 1,600 of them for the nonprofit group The Sentencing Project.

DR. ASHLEY NELLIS: You know, they're more than just the worst mistake of their lives. And it's important to find out what else was going on in their life, before and after.

JOHNSON: Here's what she found: lots of violence and abuse in their homes for years before they ever broke the law, whopping rates of being suspended or thrown out of school before an arrest. Then, Nellis says, there's this.

NELLIS: A disturbing racial disparity. We found that the proportion of African-Americans serving juvenile life without parole for killing a white person is nearly twice the rate at which African-American juveniles were arrested for taking a white person's life.

JOHNSON: But it's what happens inside the walls of prisons these days that really bothers advocates for corrections reform. The new study says more than 60 percent of juveniles locked up for life are not enrolled in classes or educational programs in prison. Not because the inmates don't want to go, but because budget tightening and prison rules block many people with life sentences from taking part.

Charles Dutton is an award-winning actor. But as a juvenile, he wound up in prison for manslaughter and other crimes.

CHARLES DUTTON: When I was a prisoner, when I was going in and out of prison in the '60s and the '70s - and this was in the state of Maryland - you couldn't come out of your cell if you didn't go to school.

JOHNSON: You were on permanent lockdown for not going to study, Dutton says.

DUTTON: From what I'm understanding now in the juvenile system, they give these kids Game Boys, you know? And, you know, you go into a juvenile place and all these kids are playing Game Boys. I mean, playing Game Boys and not going to school, what sense does that make?

JOHNSON: No sense, says Raphael Johnson. Today, Johnson heads a community group. But when he was 17, he fired a gun, killing a bystander after a fight. He barely escaped a sentence of life without parole. Instead, a judge sent him away for more than 10 years.

RAPHAEL JOHNSON: The system is designed to really destroy. It's not designed for rehabilitation. It's not designed for self-correction, self-analysis.

JOHNSON: For many young people serving long sentences, Johnson says, GED programs and vocational training are out of reach. Eventually, some of those opportunities gradually open up. But he did most of his learning on his own. The most important lesson might have come from the old A&E program "Parole Board." It ran every Sunday at 2 o'clock.

JOHNSON: And one of the things that they said was, when inmates are honest and they realize that they need help, then we can take a chance on that type of person.

JOHNSON: Johnson used those tips to win his release after two previous rejections from the parole board. The study says many juvenile prisoners settle in just as Johnson did, getting into less and less trouble as the years go by. Still, prosecutors say the possibility of life for a juvenile offender is needed for the very worst of cases. Scott Burns leads the National District Attorneys Association.

SCOTT BURNS: It is seldom used. It is one of the most gut-wrenching decisions a prosecutor will ever make in her or his career. But there are those just simply, incredibly painful, difficult, horrific cases where, you know, it should be an option.

JOHNSON: Burns says the finality of a life sentence can bring comfort to families of victims who won't have to go through multiple parole board proceedings reliving the crime each time. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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