<<previous | index | next>>
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
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.
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.
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.
Propose and urge the enactment of state legislation that
eliminates the sentence of life without parole for any crime committed by a
person under the age of eighteen.
Until the sentence of life without parole for children is
abolished, review the clemency applications of all child offenders sentenced to
life without parole and commute their sentences to terms
of years or give clemency. In reviewing clemency applications, take into
account the international legal prohibition against life without parole for
persons under the age of eighteen.
Develop and publish annual statistics on youth in the adult
criminal justice system, including: demographic information (age, race, sex),
data on children tried in criminal court, the manner by which each child
reached criminal court (e.g., transfer, direct file), the nature of the crimes
alleged, existence of prior adult record, and if convicted, the precise
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 childrens cases
in the juvenile justice system. The transfer of childrens cases to the
criminal court should be strictly limited to those cases in which a balancing
between the severity of a child offenders 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
Increase funding, training, and administrative support for
juvenile public defender programs.
Pending the abolition of the sentence of life without parole for
child offenders, cease seeking sentences of life without parole for child
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 offenders competency to stand trial as an
Before a child is tried before a criminal court, automatically
raise the issue of a
defendants 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 offenders 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 courts 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.
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
Assist child offenders in the filing of clemency applications.
Child offenders serving life without parole should have access to
all prison programs offerededucational, vocational, occupational, and other
rehabilitative programsregardless 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
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.
Peter A. was age fifteen both in this
photo and when he committed his crime.
© 2005 Private.
At the time of his crime, Peter
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 yearhomecominghe
said, theres gonna be trouble, theyre gonna be shooting at the school. You
cant go. . . . and they were shooting at the school, he was right. He
wouldnt 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. Peters 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 brothers 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 brothers 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 Peters brother. No one sat in the front passengers seat, because
there was glass on the seat from the window Peter had broken during the
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 brothers 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 Peters 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 States 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 Peters 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 Peters
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
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.
 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).
 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).
 Pre-Sentencing Investigative Report.
 Illinois v. Allen, Order Upon Denial of Rehearing,
Hon. Thomas Dwyer, May 14, 1997 (on file with Human Rights Watch).
 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 defendants
age, including under a theory of accountability. See Illinois Compiled Statute
 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dennis
Doherty, November 22, 2004.
 Pre-Sentencing Investigative Report; Letter from
James W. Fry, President, Blackstone Paralegal Studies, Inc., November 13, 2001
(on file with Human Rights Watch).
 Letter from Peter A. to Human Rights Watch,
Stateville Correctional Institution, Joliet, Illinois, March 18, 2004 (pseudonym)
(on file with Human Rights Watch).