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II. Recommendations

To the President of the United States

  • Propose and urge Congress to enact legislation abolishing the sentence of life without parole for children convicted of federal crimes.
  • Submit the Convention on the Rights of the Child to the U.S. Senate for its consent to ratification without reservation.

To the United States Congress

  • Abolish the sentence of life without parole for children convicted of federal crimes. Enable current child offenders serving life without parole to have their cases reviewed by a court for reassessment and re-sentencing to a sentence with the possibility of parole.
  • Consent (in the Senate) to ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child without reservation.
  • Increase funding to states that eliminate life without parole sentences for child offenders in order to ensure state prisons can increase rehabilitative programs focused on helping such offenders to qualify for parole.
  • Amend Part D of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to require the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to serve as a central depository, analyst, and disseminator of national data on children tried and sentenced as adults.

To the Attorney General of the United States

  • Suspend the sentence of life without parole for child offenders pending its abolition.

To United States Attorneys

  • In accordance with the instruction to U.S. government attorneys, contained in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, to consider factors such as proportionality and whether a conviction will achieve rehabilitation, do not bring charges against a youth offender that would result in a life without parole sentence when there are other charges that could be suitably brought.

To State and Federal Judges

  • Exercise any available discretion to not impose the life without parole sentence on child offenders since it constitutes a violation of international human rights law. If the sentence is mandated by statute, evaluate whether, as applied to the defendant on trial, it would constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

To State Governors

To State Legislators

  • Enact legislation that abolishes the sentence of life without parole for any offense committed by a child. Such legislation should include a retroactivity provision enabling current child offenders serving life without parole to have their cases reviewed by a court for re-assessment and re-sentencing to a sentence with the possibility of parole.
  • Strictly limit the practice of trying children in the adult criminal courts. There should be a presumption in favor of adjudicating children’s cases in the juvenile justice system. The transfer of children’s cases to the criminal court should be strictly limited to those cases in which a balancing between the severity of a child offender’s crime, his or her age, and his or her best interests clearly points to a need for transfer, and only if accused child offenders transferred to the criminal court can be provided with the care and safeguards, such as not to be compelled to give testimony or to confess guilt, to which they are entitled under international law.
  • Repeal or modify existing transfer provisions that automatically require all children charged with certain offenses to be tried as adults. The decision to transfer a case to the criminal courts should be subject to judicial discretion and should never be mandatory.
  • Enact legislation that eliminates the prosecutorial option of filing cases against child offenders directly in adult criminal court. All cases against child offenders, regardless of their alleged crime, should be brought first in a juvenile court. Enact legislation that provides criminal court judges with the discretion to send child offenders to juvenile detention facilities until they are at least twenty-one, before being sent to adult prison. Ensure that offenders over the age of eighteen who remain in juvenile detention facilities are housed separately from those below the age of eighteen.
  • Increase funding, training, and administrative support for juvenile public defender programs.

To State Prosecutors

  • Pending the abolition of the sentence of life without parole for child offenders, cease seeking sentences of life without parole for child offenders.
  • Instead of filing charges against child offenders directly in criminal court, refer all child offenders to juvenile court.
  • Before any determination to transfer a case to the criminal courts is made, request and participate in, as an officer of the court, a full and fair assessment of each child offender’s competency to stand trial as an adult.

To State Criminal and Juvenile Court Judges

  • Before a child is tried before a criminal court, automatically raise the issue of a
  • child defendant’s competency to stand trial as an adult.
  • Ensure that transfer hearings for child offenders in juvenile court are meaningful and are limited to cases in which a balancing between the severity of the child offender’s crime, age, and best interests clearly points to a need for transfer. The hearing must weigh several factors, including at a minimum: the nature and seriousness of the offense, the age and history of the child, and his or her amenability to treatment. The court’s decision should be written and should explain all evidence relied upon and reasons for ruling for or against transfer to adult criminal court. If appealed, transfer decisions should be subject to review by a higher tribunal.

To Defense Attorneys

  • Ensure that child defendants, as well as their parents or guardians, understand all procedures, defense strategies, and the seriousness of the charges, including possible sentences, so they can fully exercise their rights as clients to participate in their legal defense.
  • Vigorously defend the interests of child defendants during competency and transfer hearings, as well as during other aspects of the criminal process.
  • Assist child offenders in the filing of clemency applications.

To State and Federal Officials Who Fund and Administer Corrections Programs

  • Child offenders serving life without parole should have access to all prison programs offered—educational, vocational, occupational, and other rehabilitative programs—regardless of the length of their sentence.
  • Child offenders under the age of eighteen should not be held with adults; other decisions about where to hold youth offenders should take into account their mental and physical maturity and should be reviewed on a regular basis.
  • Provide mental health and social services to assist youth offenders in adjusting to prison conditions as well as in coping with the length of their sentences.

Case Study: Peter A.

Peter A. was age fifteen both in this photo and when he committed his crime.
© 2005 Private.

At the time of his crime, Peter A. 4 was a fifteen-year-old sophomore in high school, living at home in Chicago, Illinois with his mother, her fiancé, and his younger brother. He was seven years old when his parents divorced, and he was then raised by his mother, who supported the family through welfare and other public assistance. 5 According to Peter, he was not particularly interested in school, although he enjoyed and did well in his earth science class, which involved a lot of “lab work with my hands.”6 His probation officer reported him to be an “average student.” 7  

Peter spent much of his time with his older brother, who had his own apartment. Peter said: “[My brother] tried to keep me out of trouble . . . my sophomore year—homecoming—he said, ‘there’s gonna be trouble, they’re gonna be shooting at the school. You can’t go.’ . . . and they were shooting at the school, he was right. He wouldn’t let me go to house parties or nothing. He was trying to keep me out of trouble, but at the same time, he had me along.” Peter’s older brother was involved in drug dealing, mostly cocaine. Peter said he would sometimes act as a courier for his brother, delivering drugs to customers. He also learned how to steal cars at an early age and had a juvenile adjudication for possession of a stolen vehicle when he was thirteen. He was placed on one year of probation and completed it to the satisfaction of his probation officer. He had no prior record of violent crime and no prior felony convictions. 8 He experimented with both alcohol and marijuana, but says he stopped using any drugs or alcohol when he was placed on probation.

Following a theft of “drugs and money” from his brother’s apartment, Peter said that he went with an eighteen-year-old to steal a van to help to get the stolen goods back. Peter says he acted on his brother’s instructions, and he

has always admitted his involvement in stealing the van. Peter says he sat in the back seat of the stolen van with another young man, age twenty-one, and the eighteen-year-old driver, both of whom had guns. They drove to the home of the men they were told had robbed Peter’s brother. No one sat in the front passenger’s seat, because “there was glass on the seat” from the window Peter had broken during the theft.

According to Peter, when the three arrived at the victims’ home, Peter stayed in the stolen van while the other two went inside. Peter heard shots, and a few seconds later one of the co-defendants came running out of the house, without having recovered the drugs or money. The two sped away from the home, leaving the other young man behind. Peter said that he learned on return to his brother’s apartment that two people had been shot to death in the botched robbery. A few days later, he found out that one of the victims was a close high school friend of his, a young man who had no involvement in the original robbery of Peter’s brother. This friend, as Peter put it, was “completely innocent . . . just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Peter was arrested approximately one week after the crime, after his two co-defendants were already in custody.

Peter was questioned for a total of eight hours at the police station, without his mother or an attorney present. During this time, he readily admitted to his role in stealing the van. 9 His admission, “which the assistant State’s Attorney wrote down, did not state whether defendant intended to kill the victims.”10 Peter explained, “Although I was present at the scene, I never shot or killed anyone.” There was no physical evidence indicating that Peter had entered the victims’ home, and one of his co-defendants was proven at trial to have been the triggerman in the crime, for which he was convicted. Peter was convicted of felony murder (two counts), which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole. He was held accountable for the double murder because it was proved he had stolen the van used to drive to the victims’ house.

The judge in Peter’s case found that Peter, without a father at home, had fallen under the influence of his older brother. The judge called Peter “a bright lad” with “rehabilitative potential” and stated that he had qualms about sentencing Peter to life without parole. In his decision, he wrote: “[T]hat is the sentence that I am mandated by law to impose. If I had my discretion, I would impose another sentence, but that is mandated by law.”11 Peter’s defense attorney told a researcher for this report that one of the other perpetrators of the crime “was subsequently

acquitted. So, now you have a fifteen-year-old who was waiting outside with a stolen car doing life without parole and a murderer on the streets.”12 Peter, who has already spent nearly half his life behind bars, was twenty-nine years old when he was interviewed for this report in 2005. In prison, has obtained his G.E.D. and completed a correspondence paralegal course, from which he graduated with very good grades. 13 He works as a law clerk in the prison law library and has received one disciplinary ticket in the past six years of his incarceration for possessing an extra pillow and extra cereal in his cell. 14

[4] Throughout this report, case studies are interspersed to give readers a sense of the actual backgrounds and experiences of youth offenders sentenced to life without parole. The case studies are not intended as illustrations of the issues being addressed in particular chapters.

[5] Circuit Court of Cook County, “Adult Probation Department Pre-Sentencing Investigative Report,” July 13, 1994 (on file with Human Rights Watch) (“Pre-Sentencing Investigative Report”).

[6] Human Rights Watch interview with Peter A., Stateville Correctional Institution, Joliet, Illinois, April 20, 2005 (pseudonym) (unless otherwise noted, all statements attributed to Peter A. in this case study were obtained during this interview).

[7] “Pre-Sentencing Investigative Report.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Illinois v. Allen, Order Upon Denial of Rehearing, Hon. Thomas Dwyer, May 14, 1997 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sentencing order of Judge Dennis Dernback, October 23, 2001 (on file with Human Rights Watch) (The statute requires a life without parole sentence for an individual found guilty of first degree murder of more than one victim irrespective of the defendant’s age, including under a theory of accountability. See Illinois Compiled Statute (ILCS) 5/5-8-1).

[12] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dennis Doherty, November 22, 2004.

[13] “Pre-Sentencing Investigative Report”; Letter from James W. Fry, President, Blackstone Paralegal Studies, Inc., November 13, 2001 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

[14] Letter from Peter A. to Human Rights Watch, Stateville Correctional Institution, Joliet, Illinois, March 18, 2004 (pseudonym) (on file with Human Rights Watch).

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