USA: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch joint study -- The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the U.S.

October 12, 2005

USA: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch joint study -- The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the U.S.

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Life without parole sentences for child offenders--meaning there is no possibility of release during the prisoner's lifetime--effectively reject the well-established principle of criminal justice that children are less culpable than adults for crimes they commit. As the father of a teen offender serving life without parole pointed out to us: "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?"1 The anguish and anger of a victim's family and friends may well be the same whether a murder is committed by a child or an adult. But justice requires a sentence commensurate with both the nature of the crime and the culpability of the offender.

For supporters of life without parole sentences, the immaturity of child offenders is not a good enough reason to abolish the sentence. They argue that the punishment also serves to deter future crime. But does youth deterrence actually happen? Research has failed to show that the threat of adult punishment deters adolescents from crime. This is not surprising, given the well-documented limited abilities of children, including teenagers, to anticipate the consequences of their actions and rationally assess their options. Few adolescents are likely to be able to grasp the true significance of a life sentence. One twenty-nine-year-old woman serving life without parole told a researcher for this report that when she was sentenced, at the age of sixteen:

I didn't understand "life without" . . . [that] to have "life without," you were locked down forever. You know it really dawned on me when [after several years in prison, a journalist] came and . . . he asked me, "Do you realize that you're gonna be in prison for the rest of your life?" And I said, "Do you really think that?" You know. . . and I was like, "For the rest of my life? Do you think that God will leave me in prison for the rest of my life?"2

Virtually all countries in the world reject the punishment of life without parole for child offenders. At least 132 countries reject life without parole for child offenders in domestic law or practice. And all countries except the United States and Somalia have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which explicitly forbids "life imprisonment without possibility of release" for "offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age." Of the 154 countries for which Human Rights Watch was able to obtain data, only three currently have people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children, and it appears that those four countries combined have only about a dozen such cases.

Sentencing children as adults means they may well enter prison while they are still under eighteen. One third of the youth offenders now serving life without parole entered prison while they were still children, in violation of international human rights standards that prohibit the incarceration of children with adults. But regardless of the precise age at which they entered prison, all have faced the same conditions as the older adults with whom they live: gangs, sexual predators, extortion, and violence. They also confront special hardships inherent in their sentence. Although it may take time to fully register in a child's mind, the sentence sends an unequivocal message to children that they are banished from society forever. Youth are told that they will die in prison and are left to wrestle with the anger and emotional turmoil of coming to grips with that fact. They are denied educational, vocational, and other programs to develop their minds and skills because access to those programs is typically restricted to prisoners who will someday be released, and for whom rehabilitation therefore remains a goal. Not surprisingly, child offenders sentenced to life without parole believe that U.S. society has thrown them away. As one young man told a researcher for this report, "Seems like. . .since we're sentenced to life in prison, society says, 'Well, we locked them up, they are disposed of, removed.'"3