Sentencing Minors to life imprisonment
A few countries worldwide have allowed for minors to be given lifetime sentences that have no provision for eventual release. Countries that allow life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles include Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Cuba, Dominica, Israel, Nigeria, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the United States. Of these, only the United States currently have minors serving such sentences. The University of San Francisco School of Law’s Center for Law & Global Justice conducted international research on the use of the sentence of life without parole for juveniles, and has found no cases outside of the United States in which the sentence is actually imposed on juveniles. As of 2009, Human Rights Watch has calculated that there are 2,589 youth offenders serving life without parole in the United States.
In 2010, the United States Supreme court ruled that sentencing minors to life without parole for crimes other than murder violated the Eighth Amendment‘s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment, in the case of Graham v. Florida. In finding that the US Constitution prohibits as cruel and unusual punishment a life without parole sentence for a juvenile in a non-homicide case, the US Supreme Court stated that “the overwhelming weight of international opinion against” juvenile life without parole “provide[s] respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions.
The United States’ practice of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole violates international standards of justice, as well as treaties to which the United States is a party. Each state must ensure that its criminal punishments comply with the United States’ international treaty obligations:
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the oversight Committee instructed the United States to: “ensure that no such child offender is sentenced to life without parole” [and] “adopt all appropriate measures to review the situation of persons already serving such sentences.”
- The United Nations Convention Against Torture; the oversight Committee warned the United States that juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole could constitute “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” for youth.
- The oversight body of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found that juvenile life without parole is applied disproportionately to youth of color, and the United States has done nothing to reduce what has become pervasive discrimination. The Committee recommended that the United States discontinue the use of this sentence against persons under the age of eighteen at the time the offense was committed, and review the situation of persons already serving such sentences.
The United Nations General Assembly has called upon governments to: “abolish by law, as soon as possible . . . life imprisonment without possibility of release for those below the age of 18 years at the time of the commission of the offense”.
International standards of justice hold that a juvenile life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is not warranted under any circumstances because juvenile offenders lack the experience, education, intelligence and mental development of adults and must be given a reasonable opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.
The legal status of juveniles in the United has always been a precarious one, a wild pendulum swing from punishment to rehabilitation and back. While we have never deemed those under 16, 17 or 18 responsible enough to vote, drink or smoke or gamble, consent to sexual relations, legally purchase weapons or rent cars, we have, as a society somehow mysteriously decided that certain of these youth can indeed be held legally responsible as adults for any commission of crime.
As a result, the United States remains one of the few countries in the world to legally re-define youth as adults for the purpose of criminal prosecution. Approximately 250,000 juveniles – some sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at ages as young as 12– are locked away in a legal system designed for adults. In spite of their age and often minor crimes, they are often housed in adult facilities, at risk for sexual assault and suicide and denied education, rehabilitative services and indeed, denied a future.
Reasoning against lifetime sentencing for minors:
- Teen Brains Are Not Fully Developed
During adolescence, the brain undergoes dramatic changes to the structure and function of the brain impacting the way youth process and react to information. The region of the brain that is the last to develop is the one that controls many of the abilities that govern goal-oriented, “rational” decision-making, such as long-term planning, impulse control, insight, and judgment.
The juvenile justice system is based on this science and provides troubled adolescents with mentors, education, and the guidance to help most of them mature into responsible adults. In contrast, warehousing minors in the adult system ensures that they will not have guidance from responsible adults or have access to age-appropriate programs, services and punishment to help build positive change into their brains during this crucial developmental period.
- Youth Have Lifelong Barriers to Employment
An adult conviction can limit a youth’s opportunities for the rest of his or her life. While most juvenile records are sealed, adult convictions become public record and, depending on the state and the crime, can limit a youth’s job prospects for a lifetime. Legal barriers for people with criminal records include:
• Most states allow employers to deny jobs to people arrested but never convicted of a crime;
• Most states allow employers to deny jobs to anyone with a criminal record, regardless of how old or minor the record or the individual’s work history and personal circumstances;
• Most states make criminal history information accessible to the general public through the Internet, making it extremely easy for employers and others to discriminate against people on the basis of old or minor convictions, for example to deny employment or housing; and
• All but two states restrict in some way the right to vote for people with criminal convictions.
Example of a minor being sentenced to lifetime in prison without the possibility of parole:
“I’m very determined to show that no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve come from or what you’ve experienced in life, it’s up to you to change.” Sara Kruzan. Sentenced to lifetime in prison at age 16.
My Personal Overview: When a minor charged with murder are automatically tried as an adult unless a judge decides to move it to juvenile court. The questioning behind sentencing a minor to life in prison is if the child or teen has the capacity to realize the scope of the crime. The argument against sentencing minors as adults is the fact that children’s brains are not fully developed including the part of the brain for judgement and impulse control. Minors do not have the experience, education, intelligence or mental development of adults, so they should therefor not be tried as adults.Trying a minor as an adult also affects their future possibilities which can encourage a further life in crime, due to the lack of opportunities. Juvenile records are concealed once minor becomes an adult whereas adult criminal records are accessible for anyone, including employment opportunities. Minors deserve the chance to develop their brains completely before being sentenced as an adult. We have laws which requires people to be 18 to vote, have legal sex, buy pornography, and smoke cigarettes. A law which requires people to be 21 years of age to drink. These laws are set because the development of people’s brains are not complete until these ages to make such important decision and act at a certain level of responsibility. How can these laws be set due to the lack of development but the sentencing of minors as an adult continue?