Two leading human rights organisations have accused the United States
of in effect throwing away the lives of more than 2,000 juvenile offenders sentenced
to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole - a punishment out of
step with international law but one increasingly popular with tough-on-crime
According to a report being published today by Amnesty International and Human
Rights Watch, the United States is the only country to punish juveniles so severely
on a routine basis. They counted 2,225 child offenders locked up for life across
42 American states. In the rest of the world, they found only a dozen other
cases, restricted to three countries - Israel, South Africa and Tanzania.
"Criminal punishment in the United States can serve four goals: rehabilitation,
retribution, deterrence and incapacitation," the report concludes, and
that no punishment "should be more severe than necessary to achieve these
stated goals. Sentencing children to life without parole fails to measure up
on all counts."
Some American states permit the imposition of a life sentence without
parole to offenders as young as 10. The youngest actually serving such
a sentence are 13. Roughly one-sixth of those locked up for life committed their
offences when they were under 16. Almost 60 per cent were given their life sentence
for their first offence.
In most cases, the crime in question was murder. But about a quarter
of those locked up, the report found, were not the actual murderers, merely
participants in a robbery or burglary in which a murder was committed by someone
else. In many American states, draconian laws stipulate that being
present at the scene of a murder can be equivalent to being guilty of the murder,
with punishment meted out accordingly.
The report found that while the number of juvenile offenders being sentenced
to life had gone up markedly over the past 25 years, the rate of serious juvenile
crime had gone down. In most years since 1985, juvenile offenders have been
sentenced to life without parole at a faster rate than adult murderers.
The imposition of severe sentences on juvenile offenders has coincided
with a general crackdown on crime in the United States over the past generation.
Politicians have found that it pays electoral dividends to advocate an attitude
of "lock 'em up and throw away the key".
As a result, state and federal legislators have introduced ever tougher regimes
of mandatory minimum sentencing, including one notorious law in California whereby
even non-violent offenders can face life without parole if they are caught three
times. One of the mantras often heard in political circles is that offenders
should do "adult time for adult crimes".
Amnesty and Human Rights Watch said it was inappropriate to deny the possibility
of rehabilitation to teenagers. Sentencing them to life inside a prison removed
motivation to pursue an education or any self-improvement. Being in an adult
prison rather than a juvenile facility also exposed them to a heightened risk
of assault and rape.
Sentencing children to life without parole is forbidden under the United
Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every
member state except the US and Somalia. Out of 154 countries surveyed
in the report, 13 were found to have laws on their books permitting life sentences
for minors, but nine of these had never actually imposed one.
Peter A, 29, lifer: A sentence disowned by the judge forced to deliver
Peter A, a black child from a broken home in Chicago, was just 15 when he went
on a crime spree, ostensibly to recover some stolen money and drugs stolen from
his older brother. The outing resulted in the shooting of two men, but Peter
neither participated in nor witnessed the killings.
In fact, he later testified, one of the murder victims was a friend of his
who had nothing to do with the original theft. While the shootings took
place, Peter was sitting in a van parked in the street. He was charged with
"felony murder" anyway because he had accompanied the two killers
and, by his own admission, stolen the van in which they travelled to the house
where the murders took place.
The trial judge, Dennis Dernback, sympathised with Peter, calling him a "bright
lad" with rehabilitative potential and accepting that, in the absence of
his father, he had fallen under the bad influence of his older brother. Judge
Dernback's hands were tied, however, by Illinois' sentencing code.
In his written sentence condemning Peter to life imprisonment without
parole, he stated: "That is the sentence that I am mandated by law to impose.
If I had my discretion, I would impose another sentence, but that is mandated
Peter (not his real name) is now 29. He has obtained a high-school equivalence
diploma and completed a course in legal studies. He works in the prison library.
The only strike against his disciplinary record has been a single bad report
- for the offence of possessing an extra pillow and stashing extra cereal in