Children in the United States may be lawfully sentenced to life imprisonment, which in some states can mean life without the possibility of parole*. Until 2005 children could be sentenced to death in 20 states across the United States. Capital punishment for children is now unlawful in the United States.
There are a number of advocacy initiatives in the United States against the inhuman sentencing of children, some of which are supported by CRIN and described below.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has launched a campaign to “End Juvenile Life Without Parole”. They have heavily lobbied state and federal legislatures for law reform and have mounted individual appeals for children who have been given sentences of life without parole. They have also released a report on children in Michigan serving life sentences without parole.
The Campaign for Youth Justice is dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system. They maintain the latest research, reports and facts sheets on the issue on their website, as well as other resources including films. Acting as a national clearinghouse, they provide technical assistance to campaigners including peer support, advice on communications strategies and policy development, coalition building, and youth and family engagement. You can read more about the Campaign for Youth Justice in a special editorial in our January 2013 Violence CRINmail by Liz Ryan from the campaign.
The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth advocates against sentencing children to die in prison. The campaign is working on building a national coalition to raise awareness across the country and pushes legislative change. Its website provides details a map of where over 2000 young people are serving life sentences.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) runs a legal advocacy campaign challenging life sentences imposed on children, and is also working to galvanise public support for legislative reform. According to EJI, children as young as 13 are sentenced to die in prison with very little scrutiny or review. Read more.
The Juvenile Law Center advocates before courts and legislatures against sentencing children to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. In particular, it served as lead counsel for over 65 advocacy organisations and individuals to submit a friend–of–the–court brief in Graham v. Florida, where the US Supreme Court abolished life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children convicted of non—homicide offences.
Among many other things, Human Rights Watch campaigns in the US to eliminate sentences of life imprisonment without parole the children. It joined 25 other organisations in submitting a brief to the US Supreme Court in a case involving two 14-year-old boys sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in Alabama and Arkansas. In January 2013 it released a report on the shocking conditions children serving life sentences face in US jails, including solitary confinement.
Advocacy achievements in the United States
There have been significant achievements in protecting the human rights of children in conflict with the law in the United States in recent years.
Supreme Court victory
In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court ruled that sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole imposed on juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses are unconstitutional.
Court Opinion: Graham v. Florida Supreme Court Opinion, 5/17/10
CRIN Materials on the case:
In the wake of Graham, a number of legal challenges have been mounted in state and federal courts against sentences of life imprisonment without parole for children. The aim of these cases has been to get the sentence declared unconstitutional. You can read more in CRIN’s inhuman sentencing report on the US: http://www.crin.org/violence/search/closeup.asp?infoID=23465
A few states have abolished life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children, for both homicide and non-homicide offences.
Colorado passed a law in 2006, but it is not applied retrospectively meaning that children are sentenced before 2006 will remain in prison. Colorado House Bill 06-1315
Texas passed a law in 2009, but it only applies to children under the age of 17 at the time of the offence. Texas Senate Bill 839
Legislation to abolish juvenile life without parole sentences has been proposed in a number of other states including California, Florida Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Washington. See CRIN’s inhuman sentencing report on the US for more.
*It is important to note that a lot of these national campaigns deal with life without the possibility of parole, which is a very important issue in the United States. Life without the possibility of parole is most certainly an extreme inhuman criminal sentence to give to a child, but CRIN campaigns against all forms of life sentences against children.