• We oppose the death penalty in all cases as inherently cruel. We also work to change criminal sentences that are disproportionately severe relative to the crime and the culpability of the individual offender, including the sentencing of juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole and long sentences set by mandatory sentencing laws for low level drug offenses. These sentences violate human rights laws binding on the United States that prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and require that juvenile offenders be treated in accordance with their age and capacity for rehabilitation. We also oppose the imposition of arbitrary and disproportionate restrictions in lieu of, or in addition to, criminal punishment, such as restrictions on access to public housing, the right to vote, or choice of residence.

  • A photograph of Ethan A. (pseudonym) held by his mother, showing her son at age 11, four months before he was arrested for committing a sex offense and placed on the sex offender registry in Texas.
    Harsh public registration laws often punish youth sex offenders for life and do little to protect public safety, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. A web of federal and state laws apply to people under 18 who have committed any of a wide range of sex offenses, from the very serious, like rape, to the relatively innocuous, such as public nudity.

Reports

Excessive Punishment and Restrictions

  • Jul 18, 2014
    A decision by the US Sentencing Commission on July 18, 2014, will give 46,000 federal inmates serving unnecessarily long sentences for drug offenses a chance to seek sentence reductions. The decision would make a recent amendment to the guidelines for calculating sentences for drug offenses fully retroactive, covering inmates already sentenced as well as future offenders.
  • Jul 7, 2014
    Human Rights Watch submitted a statement to the United States Sentencing Commission in response to the Commission’s May 6, 2014 request for comments on whether its recent amendment to lower the base offense levels keyed to drug quantities should be made retroactive. We strongly support retroactive application. There is no justification for requiring formerly sentenced federal inmates to continue serving prison terms imposed under a sentencing structure the Commission has rightly discarded.
  • Jun 14, 2014
    Hopes are high that the U.S. Congress will do the right thing this year and reform notoriously harsh federal drug sentencing laws that have crammed U.S. prisons with small-time offenders.
  • Jun 3, 2014
    On May 30, 2014, the United States House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary’s Over-Criminalization Task Force held a hearing on Penalties. Human Rights Watch submitted the following written statement for the record.
  • May 27, 2014
    "Unjust and wrong” is how mayoral candidate Bill De Blasio described the New York Police Department’s crusade against low-level marijuana users.
  • May 23, 2014
    In response to a "Dear Colleagues" letter sent by Senators Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn on May 12th to their Senate colleagues voicing their opposition to portions of the Smarter Sentencing Act. Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to the authors, detailing our concerns with their opposition and responding to their claims.
  • May 6, 2014
    A landmark ruling by the California Supreme Court overturns a two-decades-old presumption in favor of life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of certain murders, Human Rights Watch said today. The decision brings the United States closer to the rest of the world in the approach to sentencing for youth.
  • May 6, 2014
    Far too many US laws violate basic principles of justice by requiring disproportionately severe punishment, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
  • May 2, 2014
    The Florida legislature has approved a bill allowing for judicial review of very long sentences for youth offenders, recognizing the injustice of such sentences for children, Human Rights Watch said today.
  • Apr 30, 2014
    Oklahoma should end its failed experiment with the death penalty. On the evening of April 29, 2014, during an attempt to execute Clayton Lockett by lethal injection, he appeared to regain consciousness. Witnesses reported that Lockett began to mumble, calling out “man” and “something’s wrong,” tried to lift his head, and began to go into a seizure. Lockett died of a heart attack 40 minutes after the execution had begun.