CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, November 26, 2007

USF Report Shows that the US is one of two Countries Who Sentence Children to Life

A new report from the University of San Francisco School of Law's Center for Law and Global Justice finds that the United States is one of only two countries in the world to sentence juveniles to life without parole.

The practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to die in prison by imposing life without parole (LWOP) has been abolished by the vast majority of countries in the world, yet thousands of children are serving the sentences in prisons across the United States, according to a new report from the USF School of Law's Center for Law and Global Justice.

With at least 2,381 children sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in the United States, and seven such cases in Israel, the two countries are the only remaining nations continuing to impose the sentence, which violates international law.

"The sentence violates customary law binding all nations, and is prohibited by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is the harshest sentence that can be given short of execution," said Michelle Leighton, director of human rights programs for the USF Center for Law and Global Justice.

The juvenile death penalty was eliminated in the United States in 2005 by the Supreme Court's ruling in Roper v. Simmons. In that decision, the court cited a brief authored by USF Law Professor Connie de la Vega, director of the Frank C. Newman International Human Rights Law Clinic, which pointed out that most countries prohibit the execution of criminals who were under 18 at the time of their crime.

"By clarifying the law and facts surrounding the use of life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders, this new report highlights how alone the United States is as a violator of the prohibition against such sentences," said de la Vega, who co-authored the report with Leighton. "Documentation of the abuse is but the first step in remedying that violation. We hope that it helps to mobilize shame in the international community as well as in the United States so that steps can be taken to stop it."

The center's report, the most comprehensive of its kind, is the next step in bringing the United States into compliance with international law guiding juvenile justice. The authors hope the report will raise awareness of the issue among the United Nations, individual governments, and the general public.

The report already made an impact on juvenile justice in Tanzania, which had been listed with the United States and Israel as a country with LWOP for juveniles. But in September, with help from Professor Nick Imparato of USF's School of Business and Management, Leighton met with the Tanzanian Ambassador to the United Nations and other officials and prevailed upon them to review the case of the one juvenile offender said to be serving a LWOP sentence and to agree to bring the country's laws into compliance with the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

"I believe our meetings with Tanzanian officials were successful in raising the case to the highest levels of the government, including the president and minister of justice. Our meetings and exchanges with these officials, including the Ambassador to the United Nations, give us every reason to believe that the country will follow through with the commitment of the presidency to review the one child's sentence and otherwise prevent a term of life without parole," Leighton said.

According to the report, children of color in the United States are 10 times more likely to receive life without parole than white child offenders. In some states, including California, the rate is 20 to 1. California lawmakers in January will consider a bill that would abolish the practice. The California Supreme Court is also considering the case of a 14-year-old boy who is the youngest person ever to be given the LWOP sentence for a crime involving no physical injury to the victim.

Full Report. . . [Mark Godsey]

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