Ending sentences of life imprisonment in South Africa
The Child Justice Act, 75 of 2008 is the result of many years of work by government and activists in the children's rights and child justice fields. One of the main principles of the Act is to use detention only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate time.
The Child Justice Alliance, a network of NGOs, community based organisations, academic institutions and individuals, worked to ensure that the Child Justice Bill was passed by the South African parliament. Visit the Child Justice Alliance to read the different submissions from NGOs commenting on the draft Bill.
Unfortunately, the new law abolished and replaced laws that regulated sentencing of offenders aged 16 and 17 at the time of the offence. Previously 16 and 17 year olds were largely exempt from the minimum sentencing provisions that Parliament enacted for serious offences in 1997. The approach of the 2007 Cabinet version of the Child Justice Bill encourages in many ways the imprisonment for children. These sentences include life imprisonment or very long jail terms. Download the factsheet on the bill.
In February 2008 the Centre for Child Law launched an application against the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Minister of Correctional Services and the Legal Aid Board, challenging the constitutionality of the new provisions. The Centre for Child Law launched the application in its own interest as a organisation dedicated to upholding and protecting children’s rights; on behalf of children at risk of being sentenced to serve a minimum sentence and in the public interest as provided for in the Constitution. In a ground-breaking judgement for the rights of children, the Pretoria High Court, declared certain aspects of the minimum sentences legislation to be unconstitutional (in November 2008).
The Centre for Child Law sought confirmation of the order of the High Court in front of the Constitutional Court. The National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) applied and was admitted as amicus curiae. NICRO was in support of the confirmation sought by the Centre for Child Law.
The Constitutional Court confirmed the order of the High Court and put an end to minimum sentencing for children aged 16 and 17.
Did you take part in the campaign to end life imprisonment of juvenile offenders in South Africa? Send us information by emailing us.
Ending sentences of capital punishment in the United States
"As of December 31, 2004, 71 children in the United States were on death row for juvenile crimes" (from the Death Penalty Information Centre). Read case summary of juvenile offenders who were on death row.
In March 2005, the United States Supreme Court ruled to end the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes while under 18 years of age as it was cruel and unusual punishment, and hence barred by the Constitution. For more information see Roper v. Simmons.
Prior to this ruling, in Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989), the United States Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed at ages 16 or 17. As a result two state supreme courts have interpreted their own state constitutions to require specific minimum ages regardless of their state death penalty statute or the federal constitutional minimum age:
- Using this state constitutional approach, the Washington Supreme Court set the minimum age at 18 (State v. Furman, 858 P.2d 1092 (Wash. 1993): and
- The Florida Supreme Court set the minimum age at 17 (Brennan v. State, 754 So.2d 1 (Fla., 1999)).
In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), the United States Supreme Court held that the United States Constitution prohibits the death penalty for mentally disabled offenders, based upon reasoning closely analogous to juvenile offenders.
The ruling in 2005 was a result of years of advocacy and lobbying by civil society organisations.
For example, Human Rights USA filed amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in each of the last three cases dealing with the juvenile death penalty issue, which culminated in the Court declaring the execution of juvenile criminal defendants unconstitutional. The briefs focused on the applicability of international human rights standards to legal requirements.
Human Rights Watch had also sent letters to Governors, letters to the House of Representatives, and even letters to States to urge them to ban the execution of children who were under age 18 at the time of the offence.
The Juvenile Justice Centre of the American Bar Association had also published a report in 2004 entitled Cruel and Unusual Punishment: The Juvenile Death Penalty - Evolving Standards of Decency, looking at the standards employed by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Atkins v. Virginia.
Did you take part in the campaign to end death penalty against juvenile offenders in the United States? Send us information by emailing us.