Such harsh treatment for youth offenders cannot be squared with the most fundamental tenets of human rights law. International standards recognize that children, a particularly vulnerable group, are entitled to special care and protection because they are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally. States are required to offer a range of alternatives to institutionalization. The imprisonment of a child should always be a measure of last resort, focused on the child´s rehabilitation, and for the shortest suitable period of time. While incarceration may be proper for youth convicted of very serious crimes such as murder, this report argues that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is never appropriate for youth offenders.

The dramatic increase in the imposition of life without parole sentences on child offenders in the United States is, at least in part, a consequence of widespread changes in U.S. criminal justice policies that gathered momentum in the last decades of the twentieth century. Responding to increases in crime and realizing the political advantages of promoting tough law and order policies, state and federal legislators steadily increased the length of prison sentences for different crimes and expanded the types of offenders facing prison sentences. They also promoted adult trials for child offenders by lowering the minimum age for criminal court jurisdiction, authorizing automatic transfers from juvenile to adult courts, and increasing the authority of prosecutors to file charges against children directly in criminal court rather than proceeding in the juvenile justice system. The United States thus abandoned its commitment to a juvenile justice system and the youth rehabilitation principles embedded in it.

"Adult time for adult crime" may be a catchy phrase, but it reflects a poor understanding of criminal justice principles. If the punishment is to fit the crime, both the nature of the offense and the culpability or moral responsibility of the offender must be taken into account. As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, the blameworthiness of children cannot be equated with that of adults, even when they commit the same crime. Most recently, in Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Court ruled that the execution of child offenders was unconstitutional, finding that juveniles are "categorically less culpable" than adult criminals. The ruling noted that juveniles lack the "well-formed" identities of adults, are susceptible to "immature and irresponsible behavior," and vulnerable to "negative influences and outside pressures." Neuroscientists have recently identified anatomical bases for these differences between juveniles and adults, establishing the behavioral significance of the less developed brains of children.

Life without parole sentences for child offenders—meaning there is no possibility of release during the prisoner´s lifetime—effectively reject the well-established principle of criminal justice that children are less culpable than adults for crimes they commit. As the father of a teen offender serving life without parole pointed out to us: "I´m a former cop. I´m a true believer in law and order. But my son was a child when this happened. He wasn´t thinking like an adult, and he wasn´t an adult . . . how is it that the law can treat him as if he is one?" The anguish and anger of a victim´s family and friends may well be the same whether a murder is committed by a child or an adult. But justice requires a sentence commensurate with both the nature of the crime and the culpability of the offender.

For supporters of life without parole sentences, the immaturity of child offenders is not a good enough reason to abolish the sentence. They argue that the punishment also serves to deter future crime. But does youth deterrence actually happen? Research has failed to show that the threat of adult punishment deters adolescents from crime. This is not surprising, given the well-documented limited abilities of children, including teenagers, to anticipate the consequences of their actions and rationally assess their options. Few adolescents are likely to be able to grasp the true significance of a life sentence. One twenty-nine-year-old woman serving life without parole told a researcher for this report that when she was sentenced, at the age of sixteen:

I didn´t understand "life without" . . . [that] to have "life without," you were locked down forever. You know it really dawned on me when [after several years in prison, a journalist] came and . . . he asked me, "Do you realize that you´re gonna be in prison for the rest of your life?" And I said, "Do you really think that?" You know. . . and I was like, "For the rest of my life? Do you think that God will leave me in prison for the rest of my life?"


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