A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based human rights organization, looks at a particularly vulnerable population of juveniles serving life without parole in the United States–those who were incarcerated for crimes committed when they were 14 or younger. Most of the seventy-three cases the EJI examined were the result of mandatory sentences; some were accomplices to older perpetrators, and others were nonviolent offenders; nearly two-thirds are nonwhite. All of them are gone for good.
The United States is unique among nations in tolerating such draconian punishment for young delinquents. Until the Supreme Court abolished the practice in the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case, the US had been the only country in the world that sanctioned the juvenile death penalty. But even though sentencing young offenders to death has been declared an unconstitutional form of cruel and unusual punishment, sentencing them to life behind bars remains, to our shame, legally acceptable. A 2005 report co-published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that more than 2,200 juvenile offenders are serving life without parole; 59 percent of them were first-time offenders, and 26 percent were in for felony murder, meaning they abetted but did not kill.
“Imprisoning a child for the rest of his life violates standards of decency in this country, particularly in light of what we know about the unique vulnerability of young adolescents and about a child’s capacity for growth, change, and redemption,” the EJI report states. “These extreme punishments for children violate international standards which require protection and special consideration because they have not fully developed physically, mentally, or emotionally.”
The report concludes, not surprisingly, with a call to abolish life imprisonment without parole for children. One hopes that international consensus, the Roper ruling, recent scientific research, political pressure and common decency will combine to put an end to this abhorrent practice. For its part, the Equal Justice Initiative has done a good service by launching a litigation campaign on behalf of the children featured in this report. If you would like to support their work with a contribution, click here.