Teenagers Sentenced to Die in California Prisons
The 227 people who have thus far been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in California have one thing in common: when they were considered children under every other law, they faced adult criminal penalties for their actions and were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. In California life without parole means just that: absolutely no opportunity for release. It is, most accurately, a sentence until death. When I die, thats when theyll send me home, said Charles T.3
In the United States at least 2,380 people are serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were under the age of 18.4 This practice violates international human rights law, which strictly prohibits the use of life without parole for those who are not yet 18 years old.5
Actual practice of states shows that the United States is out of step with most of the world. Research has found only seven individuals serving the sentence for a childhood crime outside the United States.6 Although other countries have laws permitting life without parole, only ten retain the sentence for those under age 18, but nine of these countries have no persons serving life without parole who committed the crime under the age of 18.7 Only one other country in the world continues to actually use the sentence for those ages 17 and younger.8
All but a handful of the youth sentenced to life without parole in California are boys; of the at least 227 sentenced between 1990 and mid-2007, only five were girls.9
Californias law permits youth as young as 14 to be sentenced to life without parole for certain crimes. Most of the 227 were 16 or 17 years old at the time of the crime: 41 percent were 16 years old, and 55 percent were 17. The remaining four percent were 14 or 15 years old when the crime took place.10Billy G. was 17 years old at the time of his crime and had never lived away from home. The only job he had held was at a concession stand at the local county fairgrounds. I didnt have any facial hairI learned how to shave and become a man in prison, he told us.11
There are several striking common characteristics among much of those sentenced as youth to life without parole. These characteristics do not fit what might be the typical image of an irredeemable individual, separated from community and family.
Perhaps most remarkably, the crime for which these youth receive sentences of life without parole is often their first one. In a national study of juveniles serving life without parole, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found that in 59 percent of juvenile life without parole cases surveyed, the juvenile was a first-time offender, with no juvenile or adult record.12 While there is no question that crimes incurring a life without parole sentence are serious, many individuals committing these crimes had no track record of incorrigibility before being sentenced to life with no chance of parole.
In nearly three out of four cases Human Rights Watch surveyed in California, youth had strong ties to family and community, a factor that generally weighs heavily in the success of rehabilitation.13 At the time of the crime, 71 percent of the juveniles were living with one or both parents. Another 11 percent reported that they were living with other relatives. Only a few were living without the family connection or adult direction that one might assume would lead to criminal involvement: 6 percent were homeless at the time of the crime, 4 percent were living with friends, and 1.6 percent were in foster care. For many, family ties remain after incarceration. Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said they had family visits in prison, and 52 percent of those reported having visits ranging from several times a year to as often as every week. As Raymond M. observed of his fellow youth offenders serving life without parole: With the support system they have on the outside, theyre the ones who can succeed.14
Another factor that does not fit with the stereotype of a young person in prison is that nearly 60 percent had completed grades 10, 11, or 12 before their arrests.15
2 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with the mother of Brian C., Benicia, California, November 12, 2007. In this report pseudonyms are used for all California inmates. In addition, the prison where they are housed is not identified. These and other measures are taken to hide their identity to protect them from reprisals.
3 Human Rights Watch interview with Charles T., serving life without parole in California, August 17, 2007.
4 The number of those in the United States serving life without parole for crimes committed as children is based on several sources: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States, October 2005, http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us1005/index.htm, pp. 104-107; University of San Francisco School of Law, Center for Global Law and Practice, Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison, November 2007; data secured by Human Rights Watch from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; and research on individual cases in California.
5 The first major human rights treaty ratified by the US, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), prohibits this sentence. The ICCPRs oversight Committee instructed the US to: Ensure that no such child offender is sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, and to adopt all appropriate measures to review the situation of persons already serving such sentences. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, ratified by the United States of America on June 8, 1992, art. 24. In addition, the Convention on the Rights of the Child also prohibits the use of life without parole for children, and its oversight Committee is urging governments to ban all life sentences for juveniles. Although the United States has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is a signatory. As such, it is not generally bound by the terms of the treaty; however, it has the obligation to refrain from actions which would defeat the treatys object and purpose. See Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, concluded May 23, 1969, 1155 U.N.T.S. 331, entered into force January 27, 1980. Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. Res. 44/25, U.N. Doc. A/RES/44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force September 2, 1990, signed by the United States of America on February 16, 1995. The US may also be violating its treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture whose oversight Committee told the US that the sentence could constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, ratified by the United States of America on October 21, 1994.
6 University of San Francisco School of Law, Center for Global Law and Practice, Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison, November 2007, pp. 4-9. All seven cases are in Israel.
7 Ibid., pp. 10-11. The University of San Francisco School of Law reports that other than the United States, just 10 countries still have laws permitting life with no possibility of parole for children: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Belize, Brunei, Cuba, Dominica, Israel, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, and Sri Lanka (which has legislation pending which would prohibit life without parole for children.) However, all but one of these countries do not apply the sentence for minors. As of 2007, only Israel had people serving the sentence for childhood crimes. Tanzania, South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Kenya recently confirmed that they will not use the sentence for people under the age of 18 and have no one in this category serving life without parole.
8 In addition, in US law the determination of whether a punishment is cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires courts to examine evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society. Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958). The US Supreme Court held that a court may refer to the laws of other countries and to international authorities as instructive for its interpretation of the Eighth Amendments prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments. Roper v. Simmons, 125 S.Ct. 1183, 1198 (2005). See also Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 317 (2002) (examining international communitys rejection of death penalty for persons with mental retardation); Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361, 370 n. 1(1989) (Scalia, J.) (stating that the practices of other nations, particularly other democracies, can be relevant to determining whether a practice uniform among our people is not merely an historical accident, but rather so implicit in the concept of ordered liberty that it occupies a place not merely in our mores, but, text permitting, in our Constitution as well); Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815, 830 (1988) (Stevens, J., concurring) (noting global rejection of the death penalty for youth age sixteen or younger); Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 102 (1958) (finding virtual unanimity within international community that denationalization constituted cruel and unusual punishment).
9 These figures are based on data obtained by Human Rights Watch from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) through a Public Records Act request, received April 2007. Independent research by Human Rights Watch indicates that three of those listed by the CDCR are not, in fact, serving life without parole for crimes that were committed under the age of 18. Furthermore, our research has found an additional four individuals who are not on the CDCR list are serving life without parole for crimes committed at age 17 or younger. For more discussion, see the description of methodology at page 7.
10 Data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
11 Human Rights Watch interview with Billy G., serving life without parole in California, June 29, 2007.
12 Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States, October 2005, http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us1005/index.htm, pp. 27-28. This figure is based on national research. We do not have California-specific data. California law does not prohibit trying first-time offenders as adults and imposing adult sentences for murder, including life without parole. By first-time offender we mean a person without a single adult or juvenile offense.
13 Human Rights Watch sent a survey to all persons known to be serving life without parole for a crime committed under the age of 18 in California. There were over 130 surveys completed and returned, representing more than half of the total population. The figures pertaining to living situation at the time of the crime are based on this data. While the data is based on self-reporting by the subject group, the cover letter and instructions for the survey made clear that answers would not be used to help individuals, that Human Rights Watch would not in any case be able to offer legal or other assistance to individuals responding to the survey, and, in fact, their answers would be kept confidential and pseudonyms used in all cases. A copy of the survey is reproduced in Appendix A of this report.
14 Human Rights Watch interview with Raymond M., serving life without parole in California, July 16, 2007.
15 Fifty-eight percent reported having completed grades 10, 11, or 12 and an additional 26 percent had finished the ninth grade prior to arrest for the crime that resulted in a life without parole sentence.