US Should Revisit Life Terms for Juveniles
The United States leads the world - by far - in sentencing children to die in prisons. It's the only country in the world where children are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, and Pennsylvania leads the 50 states in the category.
At least 2,380 American prisoners - 450 of them, or nearly one-fifth, in Pennsylvania - were sentenced as juveniles and will never be considered for release. They will never have the opportunity to demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated. They are effectively guaranteed to spend their entire lives behind bars for things they did as children.
The Judiciary Committee of the Pennsylvania Senate is holding hearings Monday to reexamine this practice in light of psychological and developmental research, international standards, and national trends to the contrary.
Brain-development research shows that children as a group are less culpable than adults. During the last decade, brain-scanning research has confirmed what psychologists have known for years - that the key parts of the brain associated with judgment and decision-making remain undeveloped throughout adolescence.
Parts of the brain controlling impulse behavior are the last to mature, making children more susceptible to peer pressure. This diminished capacity for understanding long-term consequences also explains why children are more capable of rehabilitation than their adult counterparts. As their brains evolve and change, they are more capable of growth and reform.
These principles have long been the foundation of our country's century-old juvenile courts, and the primary reason for distinguishing between children and adults.
Israel, the last country outside ours to abandon juvenile life sentences without parole, recently granted sentence reviews for seven prisoners serving such terms. That makes the United States the only country in contravention of international standards.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty that has been ratified by every country in the world except the United States and Somalia, explicitly prohibits execution and sentences of life without parole of children. Perhaps more troubling, the Committee on Human Rights found the United States to be in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it ratified in 1992.
Some states, including Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oregon, expressly prohibit juvenile life sentences without parole. Others, such as New Jersey, New York, Utah and Vermont, have no prisoners known to be serving such sentences.
Some of the children serving these sentences committed horrific crimes. But others were sentenced under felony-murder statutes, which means that they did not intend to kill anyone, but that someone was killed during the commission of a less serious crime. A significant number were also convicted under a theory of accomplice liability, meaning they were not the primary actors in their crimes.
These sentences disproportionately impact African American and Latino children, who are as much as 10 or 20 times more likely than white children to be sentenced to life without parole.
Eliminating such sentences would not mean that these individuals would be - or even should be - released from prison. However, it would give them the opportunity to demonstrate growth, development and rehabilitation. The American Bar Association recently adopted a resolution urging states to allow for the possibility of parole and consider the youth of offenders.
At least 135 countries have abolished these sentences. The United States and Pennsylvania should change their policies to comply with international standards and an emerging national trend.
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