In Illinois, where at least 103 inmates are serving life without parole for crimes committed before they turned 18, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow parole hearings after twenty years. State Representative Robert Molaro, a Democrat representing a district in Chicago, had to table a bill he introduced after victims’ rights groups piped up; according to this article in the Chicago Tribune, Molaro says he “hopes to revive the effort early next year and vows to work with law enforcement officials and other critics.” If it passes, Illinois will join six other states–Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky (with an asterisk, since three cases are being challenged in court), New Mexico and Oregon–that prohibit LWOP sentences for juveniles. A few other states, notably California and Michigan, are similarly positioned to consider legislative bans on the sentencing policy.
It’s becoming more and more clear to me that this is the key issue right now when it comes to juvenile justice reform in the United States. This is where the energy is; this is where the momentum is; this is where reformers have the greatest chance at success. As a follow-up to Roper v. Simmons, of course, it’s a natural. If you agree, as the Supreme Court did, that juveniles are different from adults in that they are still developing, and are therefore less culpable for their behavior and more capable of rehabilitation, then it follows that the death penalty for juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and must be abolished. And in the wake of Roper, of course, it follows that a sentence to death in prison is likewise unacceptable. There are currently at least 2,381 children serving such sentences in the United States; that is more than 99 percent of the juvenile offenders serving life without parole in the world.
The United States is by far the most egregious violator of what can fairly be described as a worldwide condemnation of life sentences for children, and it must be brought into compliance with evolving human rights standards. Whether a ban on this outmoded practice will come about by way of the courts or as the result of a wave of state legislation remains to be seen. That it is coming, I think, is beyond doubt.