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Legal News
Youth Advocates Fight to End Life-Without-Parole Sentences
Psychiatric News
Volume 41 Number 18 page 10-10

Encouraged by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year declaring the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional, some states are moving to abolish life sentences without parole (LWOP) for people who committed crimes when they were under the age of 18.

Ann Arbor lawyer Deborah LaBelle is urging the change in the wake of her report on Michigan's juvenile justice system titled "Second Chances," published in October 2005.

Last month the U.N. Human Rights Committee issued a strongly worded critique of the U.S. government's human rights record and condemned the U.S. practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole, based largely on LaBelle's report.

Forty-one states allow juvenile LWOP sentencing, although it is forbidden in most countries under the Convention of the Rights of the Child signed by all nations except the United States and Somalia. Human Rights Advocates, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International report that fewer than a dozen teens are serving this sentence in the rest of the world.

At least 2,225 individuals are serving LWOP sentences in U.S. prisons for crimes committed before they were age 18. A joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated that while the number of serious juvenile crimes are decreasing, the percentage of youth receiving LWOP sentences is increasing.

Michigan has at least 146 teens who were sentenced to life in prison when they were 16 or younger, according to LaBelle's report. More than 150 were sentenced to life for murder when they were 17.

LaBelle told Psychiatric News that when examining the juvenile-justice system for a state commission, she found that these children often come from dysfunctional homes and communities and don't have the option to leave.

The Human Rights Working Group of the American Civil Liberties Union has a petition pending in the Inter-American Commission saying that the juvenile life issue violates the International Code of Political and Civil Rights, as well as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

At a meeting scheduled for this month, the American Bar Association will consider whether to draft a resolution supporting the abolition of LWOP sentences for juveniles.

Last month the U.S. State Department defended juvenile sentencing during a review of U.S. compliance with an international treaty it signed in 1992. Authorities said the states set their own punishment and that LWOP is reserved for "hardened criminals who had committed gravely serious crimes."

But LaBelle said Michigan's cases reveal an uneven system where some teens are treated more harshly than others.

Some juvenile offenders received longer sentences than adults who were involved in the same murders, LaBelle said.

One of the glaring problems, LaBelle said, is that felony murder, a crime that can apply to those with secondary roles in a homicide, carries only one punishment: life without parole. As a result, teens can spend the rest of their lives behind bars for murder, even if they didn't pull the trigger.

Human Rights Watch has asked the United States to ensure that no juvenile offender receives the sentence. This recommendation was issued against a backdrop of alleged misstatements to the committee by the U.S. State Department regarding the extent to which children in the United States are subjected to this sentence.

The Bush administration claimed in its report on U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in response to questions by the United Nations Human Rights Committee that only the worst child offenders are sentenced to life without parole, and only in exceptional circumstances, but that is simply not true, said Alison Parker, acting director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch. The U.N. Committee has confirmed that the United States is violating its legal obligations whenever a child offender is given life without parole.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has" no formal position on the ruling of LWOP for juveniles, but I feel it is unwarranted," William Arroyo, M.D., told Psychiatric News. Arroyo is co-chair of AACAP's Juvenile Justice Reform Committee and medical director of Children's Services at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. "It is clear from recent neurobiological research that the brain does not mature until a person is in his or her 20s," he said. "Parts of the brain responsible for reasoning, abstraction, and impulse control in juveniles are still immature, so that it doesn't make sense that some youths should be punished so severely."

APA does not have an official position on this issue.

"Second Chances" is posted at<www.secondchancelegislation.org>. The Human Rights Watch statement to the Human Rights Committee is posted at<http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/07/13/usdom13734.htm>. A Human Rights Watch report on the issue is posted at<http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us1005/index.htm>.

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