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US: End Life Sentences for Youth Offenders

New Figures Show More Youth Sentenced to Die in Prison


The US Congress should pass a proposed law to end the sentencing of
youth offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole,
Human Rights Watch said today in a letter
to members of the House Judiciary Committee. At least 2,574 individuals
in the United States are serving these sentences for crimes they
committed before they were 18 years old. The United States is the only
country that uses such sentences for crimes committed by juveniles.

On May 6, 2009, Representatives Robert "Bobby" Scott and John
Conyers introduced H.R. 2289, the Juvenile Justice Accountability and
Improvement Act of 2009, in the US House of Representatives. The bill
would require states and the federal government to offer youth
offenders meaningful opportunities for parole after serving 15 years of
a life sentence.

"Sentencing juveniles to die in prison is cruel, costly, and
unnecessary," said David Fathi, US Program director at Human Rights
Watch. "Even youths who commit terrible crimes can grow and be

The introduction of the bill coincided with Human Rights Watch's release of new figures
showing that there are currently at least 2,574 persons in US prisons
who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed before
the age of 18, an increase of 90 from May 2008.

The higher number is due primarily to improvements in data reporting
rather than significant increases in the number of youth sentenced to
life without parole. Increases were most dramatic in California (250
total, an increase of 23), Michigan (346 total, an increase of 30), and
the federal Bureau of Prisons (37 total, an increase of 35). Iowa,
Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas also saw increases in
juvenile life without parole. The states with the largest numbers of
prisoners serving this sentence are Pennsylvania (444), Michigan (346),
Louisiana (335), Florida (266), and California (250).

by Human Rights Watch found that nationwide, 59 percent of youth
serving life without parole sentences received the sentence for their
first criminal conviction, and 16 percent were 15 or younger at the
time of their offense. An estimated 26 percent were convicted on the
basis of accomplice liability or felony murder. These are crimes in
which a teenager who commits a non-homicide felony such as a robbery is
held responsible for a codefendant's act of murder during the course of
the crime. State laws often do not require the person convicted on this
charge to know that a murder was planned or even that the codefendant
was armed.

"Subjecting juvenile offenders to the harshest sentence possible
fails to recognize that they are simply different from adults," Fathi
said. "The evidence we have is that they are less culpable for their
actions, and more amenable to rehabilitation."

Recent studies of adolescent brain development have found that teens
do not have the abilities of adults to make sound decisions, control
their impulses, resist group pressures, or weigh the long-term
consequences of their actions.

Human Rights Watch has also found substantial racial disparities in
life without parole sentences given to juveniles. On average across the
country, black youth are serving life without parole at a per capita
rate that is 10 times that of white youth. In Pennsylvania, which has
the largest number of juvenile offenders serving life without parole,
black youth are 21 times as likely to be serving the sentence as white

Last year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination urged the United States to discontinue the use of the
sentence, finding that the persistent racial disparities in sentencing
were incompatible with US treaty obligations. US sentencing of youth to
life without parole is also a violation of, or raises concerns under,
other international treaties to which the United States is party,
including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and
the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment.

The Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009
would require states to provide juvenile offenders serving life
sentences with meaningful opportunities for parole at least once during
their first 15 years of incarceration, and at least every three years
thereafter. States that do not comply would lose a portion of their
federal funding for law enforcement. The bill would also require parole
hearings for juveniles given life sentences under federal law.

"Giving these juvenile offenders an opportunity for a parole hearing
is not a guarantee of release," said Fathi. "But it offers them
incentives for rehabilitation and brings the United States into line
with internationally recognized standards of justice."

On May 4, the US Supreme Court agreed to decide whether life without
parole for juveniles who have committed only non-homicide crimes
violates the US Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual
punishments. The case will be heard in the court's next term, which
begins in October.

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.