Juvenile Lifers in America Without Parole
by Stephen Lendman
America is the world’s only country imprisoning children for life without the possibility of parole (JLWOP).
Doing so is unconstitutional. It violates 8th Amendment protection against “cruel an unusual punishment.” The legal dictionary calls it:
“any cruel and degrading punishment not known to the Common Law, or any fine, penalty, confinement, or treatment that is so disproportionate to the offense as to shock the moral sense of the community.”
According to the Sentencing Project, over 2,500 juveniles got life sentences in America with no possibility for parole.
They’re treated like adults regardless of age, circumstances, guilt or innocence.
Thousands languish in US prisons unjustly – many for life.
Try imagining what it’s like living behind bars forever. Children sentenced to a living death have no idea what they’re facing.
According to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY):
Most juvenile JLWOP sentences “are imposed in states where judges are obligated to impose (them) without consideration of any factors relating to a child’s age or life circumstances.”
Over 25% of juvenile lifers without parole were convicted of “felony murder or accomplice liability.”
They’re not primary criminal perpetrators. Some weren’t present when crimes occurred.
Most JLWOP victims live in five states – California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“Children sentenced to life without parole are often” US society’s most vulnerable, says CFSY.
Nearly 80% reported witnessing violence at home. More than half saw it weekly in their neighborhoods.
Black juveniles are 10 times more likely to receive JLWOP sentences than whites.
Around 80% of girls and nearly half of all children given JLWOP sentences were physically abused.
Over three-fourths of girls and 20% of all juvenile lifers said they were sexually abused.
CFSY says “children should never be sentenced to die in prison.” No other country in the world permits it.
The organization is “a national coalition and clearinghouse that coordinates, develops and supports efforts to implement fair and age-appropriate sentences for youth, with a focus on abolishing life without parole sentences for youth(s)” entirely.
It aims to “help create a society that respects the dignity and human rights of children through a justice system that operates with consideration of the child’s age, provides youth with opportunities to return to community, and bars the imposition of life without parole for people under age 18.”
All US states don’t operate the same way. Twelve and the District of Columbia prohibit life sentences for youths without parole.
Following the Supreme Court’s 2012 Miller v. Alabama ruling, states and federal authorities must consider each juvenile’s circumstances in pronouncing sentences.
Recent High Court rulings banned capital punishment for juveniles. They limited JLWOP sentences to homicide offenders.
In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Supreme Court prohibited sentencing juveniles to death. It ruled doing so cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
It left JLWOP sentences unchanged. In Graham v. Florida, the High Court prohibited them for non-homicide offenses committed before age 18.
It called the practice “cruel and unusual” punishment, saying:
“Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope.”
“A young person who knows that he or she has no chance to leave prison before life’s end has little incentive to become a responsible individual.”
America “adheres to a sentencing practice rejected the world over.” In December 2006, a UN resolution calling for JLWOP’s abolition passed 185 to 1.
America alone dissented. Few countries ever adopted it. Most have laws explicitly banning it.
The American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code calls for ending a practice most countries consider abhorrent. It states:
Children “should be judged less blameworthy for their criminal acts than older offenders – and age-based mitigation should increase in correspondence with the youthfulness of individual defendants.”
The Sentencing Project call America “out of step with the rest of the world in its treatment of juveniles who commit serious crimes.”
“Sentences that close the door on rehabilitation and second chances are cruel and misguided.”
Congressional legislation banning the practice is long overdue. With bipartisan hardliners in charge, chance for responsible policy is virtually nil.
According to UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez:
“The US practice of imposing life sentences on children in cases of homicide violates international law on numerous fronts, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).”
America refuses to join the Convention. The so-called standard bearer of democratic values spurns core principles it espouses.
CRC’s Principle 1 states:
“Every child, without exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to (fundamental human and civil) rights, without distinction or discrimination on account of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status, whether of himself or of his family.”
They’re entitled to special protections and opportunities to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy normal way under conditions of freedom and dignity.
They deserve normal life, an adequate standard of living, healthcare, education, leisure, safety and peace. Incarceration compromises or denies them entirely.
CRC’s Article 37 states:
“No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…”
“No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily…”
“Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect…”
“Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance…”
CRC mandates detention as a last resort for the shortest possible time. Life imprisonment without parole is expressly prohibited.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) mandates special treatment for children. Article 10(1) states:
“All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”
Under Article 10(3):
“Juvenile offenders shall be segregated from adults and be accorded treatment appropriate to their age and legal status.”
Article 14(4) states:
“In the case of juvenile persons, the procedure shall be such as will take account of their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation.”
In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee said sentencing children to life without parole violates ICCPR provisions.
It called on America to end the practice. It said continuing it “could constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment.”
Each year since 2009, the General Assembly called for abolishing “life imprisonment without possibility of release for those under the age of 18 years at the time of the commission of the offense.”
Federal law and most states have mandatory sentencing laws. Mitigating factors are precluded.
Age, history of abuse, trauma, degree of criminal involvement, mental health status, or amenability to treatment or rehabilitation don’t matter.
Dr. Louis Kraus chairs the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s juvenile justice reform committee.
He calls sentencing juveniles to life in prison “a devastating process to even conceptualize.”
“The toughest part is that the crimes children might have committed, as devastating as they may have been, are really in unformed brains.”
“These teenagers are not the same as their adult counterparts will be. Many of them are not going to be that same person.”
“They’re going to show greater insight, better empathy, less impulsivity, better reasoning ability in terms of understanding the short and long-term ramifications of their behavior.”
Imprisoning them for life without parole denies their right to develop normally in society like others. It steals their futures. It denies them hope.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.
His new book as editor and contributor is titled “Flashpoint in Ukraine: US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III.”
Visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com.
Listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network.
It airs three times weekly: live on Sundays at 1PM Central time plus two prerecorded archived programs.