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United States: Thousands of Children Sentenced to Life without Parole

National Study by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch Finds Majority Face Life for First Offense

There are at least 2,225 child offenders serving life without parole sentences in U.S prisons for crimes committed before they were age 18, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said in a new joint report published today.

While many of the child offenders are now adults, 16 percent were between 13 and 15 years old at the time they committed their crimes. An estimated 59 percent were sentenced to life without parole for their first-ever criminal conviction. Forty-two states currently have laws allowing children to receive life without parole sentences.

The 157-page report, The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States, is the first national study examining the practice of trying children as adults and sentencing them to life in adult prisons without the possibility of parole. The report is based on two years of research and on an analysis of previously uncollected federal and state corrections data. The data allowed the organizations to track state and national trends in LWOP sentencing through mid-2004 and to analyze the race, history and crimes of young offenders.

“Kids who commit serious crimes shouldn't go scot-free,” said Alison Parker, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, who authored the report for both organizations. “But if they are too young to vote or buy cigarettes, they are too young to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.”

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are releasing The Rest of Their Lives at a critical time: while fewer youth are committing serious crimes such as murder, states are increasingly sentencing them to life without parole. In 1990, for example, 2,234 children were convicted of murder and 2.9 percent sentenced to life without parole. By 2000, the conviction rate had dropped by nearly 55 percent (1,006), yet the percentage of children receiving LWOP sentences rose by 216 percent (to nine percent).

“Untie the hands of state and federal judges and prosecutors,” said Dr. William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA). “Give them options other than turning the courts into assembly lines that mass produce mandatory life without parole sentences for children, that ignore their enormous potential for change and rob them of all hopes for redemption.”

In 26 states, the sentence of life without parole is mandatory for anyone who is found guilty of committing first-degree murder, regardless of age. According to the report, 93 percent of youth offenders serving life without parole were convicted of murder. But Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that an estimated 26 percent were convicted of “felony murder,” which holds that anyone involved in the commission of a serious crime during which someone is killed is also guilty of murder, even if he or she did not personally or directly cause the death.

For example, 15-year-old Peter A. was sentenced to life without parole for felony murder. Peter had joined two acquaintances of his older brother to commit a robbery. He was waiting outside in a van when one of the acquaintances botched the robbery and murdered two victims. Peter said, “Although I was present at the scene, I never shot or killed anyone.” Nevertheless, Peter was held accountable for the double murder because it was established during the trial that he had stolen the van used to drive to the victims’ house.

The human rights organizations also said that widespread and unfounded fears of adolescent “super-predators”—violent teenagers with long criminal histories who prey on society—prompted states to increasingly try children as adults. Ten states set no minimum age for sentencing children to life without parole, and there are at least six children currently serving the sentence who were age 13 when they committed their crimes. Once convicted, these children are sent to adult prisons and must live among adult gangs, sexual predators and in harsh conditions. For more state-by-state statistics please see the State-by-State Summary.

According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is no correlation between the use of the LWOP sentence and youth crime rates. There is no evidence it deters youth crime or is otherwise helpful in reducing juvenile crime rates. For example, Georgia rarely sentences children to life without parole but it has youth crime rates lower than Missouri, which imposes the sentence on child offenders far more frequently.

“Public safety can be protected without subjecting youth to the harshest prison sentence possible,” said Parker.
Nationwide, black youth receive life without parole sentences at a rate estimated to be ten times greater than that of white youth (6.6 versus 0.6). In some states the ratio is far greater: in California, for example, black youth are 22.5 times more likely to receive a life without parole sentence than white youth. In Pennsylvania, Hispanic youth are ten times more likely to receive the sentence than whites (13.2 versus 1.3).

The United States is one of only a few countries in the world that permit children to be sentenced to LWOP. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every country in the world except the United States and Somalia, forbids this practice, and at least 132 countries have rejected the sentence altogether. Thirteen other countries have laws permitting the child LWOP sentence, but, outside of the United States, there are only about 12 young offenders currently serving life sentences with no possibility of parole.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also challenged the presumption that the youth offenders are irredeemable, which is implicit in the sentence they have received.

“Children who commit serious crimes still have the ability to change their lives for the better,” said David Berger, attorney with the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers and Amnesty International’s researcher for this report. “It is now time for state and federal officials to take positive steps by enacting policies that seek to redeem children, instead of throwing them in prison for the rest of their lives.”

The organizations called on the United States to end the practice of sentencing child offenders to life without parole. For those already serving life sentences, immediate efforts should be made to grant them access to parole procedures.

Testimonies from The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States

On comprehending the life without parole sentence:
A 29-year-old woman who was sentenced to life without parole at the age of 16 said:
“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?’”
—Interview with Cheryl J., MacPherson Unit, McPherson, Arkansas, June 24, 2004 (pseudonym)

On committing crimes as children and being tried as adults:
Gregory C., who committed his crime of first degree murder when he was 15, described his state of mind at the time:
“A kid just does something—whether it’s an accident or intentional. I mean personally, me, I was fifteen years old . . . I didn’t know what I was doing. I was still a kid. . . . Kids do a lot of stupid things. . . . The person I was when I was fifteen, I really didn’t have any morals, I didn’t even know who I was at that time. I hate to admit it, but I was real ignorant.”
—Interview with Gregory C., Colorado State Penitentiary, Cañon City, Colorado, July 2, 2004 (pseudonym)

Thomas M. described what happened when he heard the jury’s verdict:
“I was very emotional and I broke out crying in court. I don’t know if I fully understood but I kinda understood when they just said, ‘guilty, guilty, guilty’ and ‘life’ y’ know? As time went on, I’m really starting to realize how serious it is. I was young, I wasn’t really too educated. When I got locked up, I was in the eighth grade. All my education has come through the years of being incarcerated.”
—Interview with Thomas M., Colorado State Penitentiary, Canon City, Colorado, July 27, 2004 (pseudonym)

On contemplating suicide in adult prison:
Richard I., who was 14 at the time of his crime and entered prison at age 16, spoke about his suicidal thoughts and his repeated practice of cutting his arms with razor blades:
“When I went to prison, I was around all the—up all night—all the violence. I was like, ‘man I gotta get out of this—how am I gonna get out of this prison?’ I can’t do no life sentence here at that age. And so I thought of that [killing himself]. Gotta end it, gotta end it . . . I’ve got so many cuts on me. . . . Razor blades. They give us disposable razors, you pop it out.”
—Interview with Richard I., East Arkansas Regional Unit, Brickeys, Arkansas, June 21, 2004 (pseudonym)

On rape and other physical violence in adult prison:
Brian B. wrote about what happened soon after he entered prison in Pennsylvania at the age of 17 with a life without parole sentence:
“Sheriffs took me to the Western Penitentiary. They lied to the warden telling him I were eighteen, which I had not yet become. I were housed in an open poorly supervised unit, and that evening a group of large adult men rushed into my cell, holding me down, they began pulling my clothes off while another took a syringe over to a spoon that another inmate were holding a lighter under. He drew up whatever was in the spoon. I were then injected with whatever it were. And then raped. Once found by the officers I were taken to a holding area, cleaned up, and placed on a van to another prison at around 3:00 am.”
—Letter from Brian B., Albion, Pennsylvania, August 28, 2004 (pseudonym)

Warren P. wrote that when he first came to prison, at the age of 15:
“I was the target of covert sexual predators. Adults would pretend to be your best friend to get close to you, then they would try you. . . . Officers would be hard on me more so than the adults for they believe that the younger inmates need rougher treatment.”
—Letter to Human Rights Watch from Warren P., Marion Correction Institute, Lowell, Florida, March 2, 2004 (pseudonym)

On rehabilitation:
Charles L. came to prison at age 19. He spoke with obvious pride about what he was learning on “hoe squad” in the Arkansas Department of Corrections:
“I ain’t ever had no job. But now I’m on hoe squad. Know how to plant everything. Cantaloupe, squash, onions, green beans, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, peas, sweet potatoes . . . everything they grow, eggplant . . . they grow everything. There’s a lot I know since I been here.”
—Interview with Charles L, Varner Unit, Arkansas, June 22, 2004 (pseudonym)

Troy L., who was 15 when he murdered his abusive father, was interviewed for this report at age 24 in June 2004. He wrote in a subsequent letter:
“I would be ever grateful, in fact, for the chance to spend my life now for some good reason. I would go to the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan or Israel, or jump on the first manned mission to Mars. . . .[I]f the state were to offer me some opportunity to end my life doing some good, rather than a slow-wasting plague to the world, it would be a great mercy to me.”
—Letter to Human Rights Watch from Troy L., Grady Arkansas, July 2004 (pseudonym)

A legislator’s, prosecutor’s, and judge’s views on the sentence:
Florida State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who prosecuted 14-year-old Joshua Phillips for killing his eight-year-old female neighbor in 1998 said:
I oppose mandatory sentences and the Legislature's tying the hands of judges and prosecutors. No matter how tough you are on crime, you can't say a fourteen-year-old is the same as an eighteen-year-old.
—Paul Pinkham, “Court upholds life in prison for teenager,” Florida Times-Union, February 7, 2002, p. B-1

The judge who sentenced 15-year-old Henry L. to life without parole for first degree murder said at sentencing:
“[T]he sentence that I must impose is mandated by law. I don’t have any choice in the matter. I’m not at all comfortable with this case, not because the Defendant didn’t receive a fair trial. I think that he did. . . . [But] it’s obvious to me that we can’t, as a society, say that fifteen-year-old children should be held to the same standards as adults. Our law provides this. I think the law is wrong.”
—Honorable David Scott DeWitt (deceased), excerpt from sentencing transcript in People v. Lashuay, 75th Circuit Court, Midland County, Michigan, June 25, 1984 (on file with Human Rights Watch)

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