October 12, 2005
The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States
A joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
I'm a former cop. I'm a true believer in law and order. But my son was a child when this happened. He wasn't thinking like an adult, and he wasn't an adult . . . how is it that the law can treat him as if he is one?
--Frank C., father of youth offender sentenced to life without parole, October 22, 2004
Children can and do commit terrible crimes. When they do, they should be held accountable, but in a manner that reflects their special capacity for rehabilitation. However, in the United States the punishment is all too often no different from that given to adults.
In civil matters, state and federal laws recognize the immaturity and irresponsibility of children. For example, they typically establish eighteen as the minimum age to get married without parental consent, to vote, to sign contracts, or to serve on a jury. Yet in forty-two states and under federal law, the commission of a serious crime by children under eighteen--indeed in some states children as young as ten--transforms them instantly into adults for criminal justice purposes. Children who are too young to buy cigarettes legally, boys who may not have started to get facial hair, kids who still have stuffed animals on their beds, are tried as adults, and if convicted, receive adult prison sentences, including life without parole (LWOP).
This report is the first ever national analysis of life without parole sentences for children. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have discovered that there are currently at least 2,225 people incarcerated in the United States who have been sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for crimes they committed as children. In the United States, departments of corrections do not maintain publicly accessible and accurate statistics about child offenders incarcerated in adult prisons, and there is no national depository of these data. Therefore, we were able to collect data on individuals sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as children only by requesting that it be specially produced for us by each state's corrections department.
The public may believe that children who receive life without parole sentences are "super-predators" with long records of vicious crimes. In fact, an estimated 59 percent received the sentence for their first-ever criminal conviction. Sixteen percent were between thirteen and fifteen years old at the time they committed their crimes. While the vast majority were convicted of murder, an estimated 26 percent were convicted of felony murder in which the teen participated in a robbery or burglary during which a co-participant committed murder, without the knowledge or intent of the teen. Racial disparities are marked. Nationwide, the estimated rate at which black youth receive life without parole sentences (6.6 per 10,000) is ten times greater than the rate for white youth (0.6 per 10,000).
Our research shows significant differences among the states in the use of life without parole sentences for children. For example, Louisiana, and Michigan have rates that are three to seven-and-a-half times higher than the national average of 1.77 per 100,000 children nationwide. At the other end of the spectrum, New Jersey and Utah permit life without parole for children but have no child offenders currently serving the sentence. Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, New York, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia all prohibit the sentence for youth offenders. In May of 2005, Texas changed its law to allow individuals found guilty of a capital felony (including those below the age of eighteen) to be sentenced to life without parole. However, we could not definitively interpret this legislation, nor could we include data from Texas in this report, because the law went into effect on September 1, 2005, meaning it had not yet been applied or interpreted by the courts of Texas when this report went to press.