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
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
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
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
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>.▪