Virtually all countries in the world reject the punishment
of life without parole for child offenders. At least 132 countries
reject life without parole for child offenders in domestic law
or practice. And all countries except the United States and Somalia
have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which
explicitly forbids "life imprisonment without possibility of release" for "offenses
committed by persons below eighteen years of age." Of the 154 countries
for which Human Rights Watch was able to obtain data, only three
currently have people serving life without parole for crimes they
committed as children, and it appears that those four countries
combined have only about a dozen such cases.
Sentencing children as adults means they may well
enter prison while they are still under eighteen. One third of
the youth offenders now serving life without parole entered prison
while they were still children, in violation of international human
rights standards that prohibit the incarceration of children with
adults. But regardless of the precise age at which they entered
prison, all have faced the same conditions as the older adults
with whom they live: gangs, sexual predators, extortion, and violence.
They also confront special hardships inherent in their sentence.
Although it may take time to fully register in a child´s
mind, the sentence sends an unequivocal message to children that
they are banished from society forever. Youth are told that they
will die in prison and are left to wrestle with the anger and emotional
turmoil of coming to grips with that fact. They are denied educational,
vocational, and other programs to develop their minds and skills
because access to those programs is typically restricted to prisoners
who will someday be released, and for whom rehabilitation therefore
remains a goal. Not surprisingly, child offenders sentenced to
life without parole believe that U.S. society has thrown them away.
As one young man told a researcher for this report, "Seems like.
. .since we´re sentenced to life in prison, society says,
'Well, we locked them up, they are disposed of, removed.´"
U.S. federal and state governments have the responsibility
of ensuring community safety. But government is also responsible
for ensuring that justice is served when a person is tried, convicted,
and sentenced. The terrible crimes committed by children can ruin
lives, causing injury and death to the victims and grief to their
families and friends. Sentencing must reflect the seriousness of
the crime, but it also must acknowledge that culpability can be
substantially diminished by reason of the youth and immaturity
of the perpetrator. Child offenders should be given the possibility
of freedom one day, when they have matured and demonstrated their
remorse and capacity for rehabilitation.
Note: In keeping with international human rights
standards, throughout this report we use the terms "child" and "children" to
refer to persons under the age of eighteen. Unless otherwise indicated,
all references to youth, adolescents, minors, and juveniles also
refer to persons under the age of eighteen.
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