Thousands of US youth face life in jail – No parole for 2,225 child offenders

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‘America is one of only a few countries in the world where children face life sentences without parole’, said Amnesty International on Wednesday.

‘There are at least 2,225 child offenders serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences in US prisons for crimes committed before they were age 18’, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said in a new joint report published Wednesday.

In a press statement launching the report, the organisations added: ‘While many of the child offenders are now adults, 16 per cent were between 13 and 15 years old at the time they committed their crimes.

‘An estimated 59 per cent were sentenced to life without parole for their first-ever criminal conviction.

‘Forty-two states currently have laws allowing children to receive life without parole sentences.

‘The 157-page report, The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States, is the first national study examining the practice of trying children as adults and sentencing them to life in adult prisons without the possibility of parole.

‘The report is based on two years of research and on an analysis of previously uncollected federal and state corrections data.

‘The data allowed the organisations to track state and national trends in LWOP sentencing through mid-2004 and to analyse the race, history and crimes of young offenders.’

‘Kids who commit serious crimes shouldn’t go scot-free,’ said Alison Parker, Senior Researcher with Human Rights Watch, who authored the report for both organisations.

‘But if they are too young to vote or buy cigarettes, they are too young to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.’

The press statement continues: ‘Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are releasing The Rest of Their Lives at a critical time: while fewer youth are committing serious crimes such as murder, states are increasingly sentencing them to life without parole.

‘In 1990, for example, 2,234 children were convicted of murder and 2.9 per cent of these were sentenced to life without parole.

‘By 2000, the conviction rate had dropped by nearly 55 per cent (1,006), yet the percentage of children receiving LWOP sentences rose by 216 per cent (to nine per cent).’

‘Untie the hands of state and federal judges and prosecutors,’ said Dr William F Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA).

‘Give them options other than turning the courts into assembly lines that mass produce mandatory life without parole sentences for children, that ignore their enormous potential for change and rob them of all hopes for redemption.’

The joint statement continues: ‘In 26 states, the sentence of life without parole is mandatory for anyone who is found guilty of committing first-degree murder, regardless of age.

‘According to the report, 93 per cent of youth offenders serving life without parole were convicted of murder.

‘But Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that an estimated 26 per cent were convicted of “felony murder,” which holds that anyone involved in the commission of a serious crime during which someone is killed is also guilty of murder, even if he or she did not personally or directly cause the death.

‘For example, fifteen-year-old Peter A, was sentenced to life without parole for felony murder.

‘Peter had joined two acquaintances of his older brother to commit a robbery.

‘He was waiting outside in a van when one of the acquaintances botched the robbery, and murdered two victims.

‘Peter said, “Although I was present at the scene, I never shot or killed anyone.”

‘Nevertheless, Peter was held accountable for the double murder because it was established during the trial that he had stolen the van used to drive to the victims’ house.

‘The human rights organisations also said that widespread and unfounded fears of adolescent “super-predators” – violent teenagers with long criminal histories who prey on society – prompted states to increasingly try children as adults.

‘Ten states set no minimum age for sentencing children to life without parole, and there are at least six children currently serving the sentence who were age 13 when they committed their crimes.

‘Once convicted, these children are sent to adult prisons and must live among adult gangs, sexual predators and in harsh conditions.

‘According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is no correlation between the use of the LWOP sentence and youth crime rates.

‘There is no evidence it deters youth crime or is otherwise helpful in reducing juvenile crime rates.

‘For example, Georgia rarely sentences children to life without parole but it has youth crime rates lower than Missouri, which imposes the sentence on child offenders far more frequently.

‘Public safety can be protected without subjecting youth to the harshest prison sentence possible,’ said Parker.

The organisation adds: ‘Nationwide, black youth receive life without parole sentences at a rate estimated to be ten times greater than that of white youth (6.6 versus 0.6).

‘In some states the ratio is far greater: in California, for example, black youth are 22.5 times more likely to receive a life without parole sentence than white youth.

‘In Pennsylvania, Hispanic youth are ten times more likely to receive the sentence than whites (13.2 versus 1.3).

‘The United States is one of only a few countries in the world that permits children to be sentenced to LWOP.

‘The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every country in the world except the United States and Somalia, forbids this practice, and at least 132 countries have rejected the sentence altogether.

‘Thirteen other countries have laws permitting the child LWOP, but, outside of the United States, there are only approximately 12 young offenders currently serving life sentences with no possibility of parole.’

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also challenged the presumption that the youth offenders are irredeemable, which is implicit in the sentence they have received.’

‘Children who commit serious crimes still have the ability to change their lives for the better,’ said David Berger, attorney with the law firm of O’Melveny & Meyers and Amnesty International’s researcher for this report.

‘It is now time for state and federal officials to take positive steps by enacting policies that seek to redeem children, instead of throwing them in prison for the rest of their lives.’

The organisations called on the United States to end the practice of sentencing child offenders to life without parole.

For those already serving life sentences, immediate efforts should be made to grant them access to parole procedures, they added.