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.
Before 1980, life without parole was rarely imposed on children. The number of child offenders who received the sentence each year began to increase in the late 1980s, reaching 50 in 1989. It peaked in 1996 at 152 and then began to drop off; in 2003, 54 child offenders entered prison with the sentence. But states have by no means abandoned the use of life without parole for child offenders: the estimated rate at which the sentence is imposed on children nationwide remains at least three times higher today than it was fifteen years ago. In fact, the proportion of youth offenders convicted of murder who receive life without parole has been increasing, suggesting a tendency among states to punish them with increasing severity. For example, in 1990 there were 2,234 youth convicted of murder in the United States, 2.9 percent of whom were sentenced to life without parole. Ten years later, in 2000, the number of youth murderers had dropped to 1,006, but 9.1 percent were sentenced to life without parole.
In addition, in eleven out of the seventeen years between 1985 and 2001, youth convicted of murder in the United States were more likely to enter prison with a life without parole sentence than adult murder offenders. Even when we consider murder offenders sentenced to either life without parole or death sentences, in four of those seventeen years, youth were more likely than adults to receive one of those two most punitive sentences.
Such harsh treatment for youth offenders cannot be squared with the most fundamental tenets of human rights law. International standards recognize that children, a particularly vulnerable group, are entitled to special care and protection because they are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally. States are required to offer a range of alternatives to institutionalization. The imprisonment of a child should always be a measure of last resort, focused on the child's rehabilitation, and for the shortest suitable period of time. While incarceration may be proper for youth convicted of very serious crimes such as murder, this report argues that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is never appropriate for youth offenders.
The dramatic increase in the imposition of life without parole sentences on child offenders in the United States is, at least in part, a consequence of widespread changes in U.S. criminal justice policies that gathered momentum in the last decades of the twentieth century. Responding to increases in crime and realizing the political advantages of promoting tough law and order policies, state and federal legislators steadily increased the length of prison sentences for different crimes and expanded the types of offenders facing prison sentences. They also promoted adult trials for child offenders by lowering the minimum age for criminal court jurisdiction, authorizing automatic transfers from juvenile to adult courts, and increasing the authority of prosecutors to file charges against children directly in criminal court rather than proceeding in the juvenile justice system. The United States thus abandoned its commitment to a juvenile justice system and the youth rehabilitation principles embedded in it.
"Adult time for adult crime" may be a catchy phrase, but it reflects a poor understanding of criminal justice principles. If the punishment is to fit the crime, both the nature of the offense and the culpability or moral responsibility of the offender must be taken into account. As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, the blameworthiness of children cannot be equated with that of adults, even when they commit the same crime. Most recently, in Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Court ruled that the execution of child offenders was unconstitutional, finding that juveniles are "categorically less culpable" than adult criminals. The ruling noted that juveniles lack the "well-formed" identities of adults, are susceptible to "immature and irresponsible behavior," and vulnerable to "negative influences and outside pressures." Neuroscientists have recently identified anatomical bases for these differences between juveniles and adults, establishing the behavioral significance of the less developed brains of children.
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:
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
U.S. federal and state governments have the responsibility of ensuring community safety. But government is also responsible for ensuring that justice is served when a person is tried, convicted, and sentenced. The terrible crimes committed by children can ruin lives, causing injury and death to the victims and grief to their families and friends. Sentencing must reflect the seriousness of the crime, but it also must acknowledge that culpability can be substantially diminished by reason of the youth and immaturity of the perpetrator. Child offenders should be given the possibility of freedom one day, when they have matured and demonstrated their remorse and capacity for rehabilitation.
Download the full report (PDF). »
Note: In keeping with international human rights standards, throughout this report we use the terms "child" and "children" to refer to persons under the age of eighteen. Unless otherwise indicated, all references to youth, adolescents, minors, and juveniles also refer to persons under the age of eighteen.