Juveniles Sentenced to Life without Parole
Cruel or Just Unusual?
Juvenile Sentencing: Life without Parole, Cruel or Just Unusual?
When the Judge announced the verdict “Guilty” there was a slight murmur in the court room as was expected. Then the Judge began to announce the sentence “Life in prison without the possibility of parole”, the words cutting through the air like an arrow through a paper target. The courtroom was an arena of mixed feelings, half cheering in a celebratory manner, the other half crying and shouting in disbelief. Someone’s 13 year old son was going to prison for the rest of his life without any chance of parole. Children should never be sentenced to life without parole, making the sentence in itself a death penalty for a juvenile.
This scenario has been played out in America’s courtrooms many times over the years. Every year in the United States, children as young as thirteen are sentenced to die in prison. It’s called life without parole (LWOP, JLWOP for juveniles). It is estimated that thousands of children have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed at an age when they are not considered responsible enough to live away from their parents, drive, make decisions related to their education or medical treatment, vote, leave school or sign a contract. Children under the age eighteen cannot legally use alcohol, serve on juries or be drafted, because they are presumed not to have the capacity to handle adult responsibilities (Labelle, Phillips, Horton, 2006). These differences are recognized throughout the world, and incorporated into many international human rights documents.
Currently as of May 2009, an estimated 2,500 juveniles (ranging in age from 13 to 17) in the United States are serving a sentence of life without parole. Iraq doesn't do it and North Korea considers it a cruel form of punishment. However, in the United States sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole is legal. But besides the United States, 10 other countries have laws that could permit such sentencing procedures. These nations include Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Belize, Brunei, Cuba, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, and Sri Lanka (Gesaman, 2009).
However, other country in the world currently has adolescents serving this sentence. The immorality of "throwing away the key" for juveniles in prison becomes striking when comparing the U.S. to the rest of the world. No child outside of the U.S. is serving such a sentence the United States stands alone in the world in regards to this subject (Henning, 2009).
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child signed in November 1989 by 146 countries contains an express prohibition on JLWOP. The United States government played an active role in the drafting of the Convention and signed it on 16 February 1995, but has not ratified it. Along with Somalia, the United States is one of only two countries in the world which have not ratified the Convention (U.N. Convention - Rights of the Child, 1989). It has been claimed that opposition to the Convention stems primarily from political and religious conservatives. For example, the Heritage Foundation sees it as threatening national control over domestic policy. Other groups also oppose it, such as the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), which argues that the Convention threatens home schooling, and parental rights groups such as ParentalRights.org, who claim that it would automatically override almost all domestic laws on children and families because it undermines parental rights by granting state officials the power to micromanage families and review all parental decisions to verify that they are truly in the "best interests" of the child. President Barack Obama has described the failure to ratify the Convention as “embarrassing” and has promised to review this issue.
Cited: Charles Stimson, Grossman, A.W. (2009, August) Adult Crime for Adult Time: Life without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens. Washington D.C., The Heritage Foundation Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.
Deborah LaBelle, Phillips, A., & Horton, L. (2006, January 1). Second Chances: Juveniles serving life sentences in Michigan prisons. Detroit, Michigan. American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
End Juvenile Life without Parole. (2009, June 9) American Civil Liberties Union Online. http://www.aclu.org/human-rights_racial-justice/end-juvenile-life-without-parole.
Graham v. Florida. No. 08-7412., Supreme Court of the United States, 130 S. Ct. 357; 175 L. Ed. 2d 18; 2009 U.S., October 5, 2009, Decided.
Krista Gesaman. (2009, November 4). 18 and a Life to Go. Newsweek.
Kristin Henning. (2009, October 26th). The Case Against Juvenile Life Without Parole: Good Policy and Good Law. Co-Director of Juvenile Justice Clinic and Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.
Robert Barnes. (2010, May 18). Supreme Court restricts life without parole for juveniles. Washington D.C., Washington Post.
Roper v. Simmons. No. 02-1057 , Supreme Court of the United States, 538 U.S. 923; 123 S. Ct. 1582; 155 L. Ed. 2d 314; 2003 U.S., March 24, 2005, Decided.
Sullivan v. Florida. No. 08-7621., Supreme Court of the United States, 129 S. Ct. 2157; 173 L. Ed. 2d 1155; 2009 U.S., May 4, 2009, Decided.
Warren Richey. (2010, May 17), Supreme Court puts limits on life sentences for juveniles, Staff writer, The Christian Science Monitor.
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