Tuesday, March 16, 2021
Biden Administration Rejects UN Recommendations to End Life Without Parole for Juveniles
The US response to the UPR Recommendations issued by the UN Human Rights Council was posted by the OHCHR last week. The US response makes reference to some of the positive actions that the Biden administration has taken regarding human rights since the new president's inauguration in January, including depositing the instrument to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change, efforts to reengage with the UN Human Rights Council, and more.
It is wonderful to see that the new administration supports recommendations to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), especially given that the US is the only UN Member nation that has not ratified the CRC. However, it's disheartening to see the US refuse to support recommendations to end sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole. The US response notes that "[j]uveniles may receive only non-mandatory life sentences and only for particularly severe homicide offenses when warranted in a particular case. These sentences are intended to be rare and are subject to review on appeal."
Whereas the US couched its response to the recommendations to abolish the death penalty with statements such as "President Biden supports legislatively ending the death penalty at the federal level and incentivizing states to follow the federal government’s example," there was no indication of any support for ending the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole. This is very disappointing for those of us working with clients sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.
For the past year, my clinic students and I have been representing offenders in Missouri who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles for the purposes of parole hearings. After legislation was enacted and a lawsuit filed by the Macarthur Justice Center, juveniles sentenced to life without parole in Missouri have been given a chance at release for the first time ever. Under the new legislation and court orders obtained by the Macarthur Justice Center, the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole has to consider mitigation factors in its decision whether or not to grant parole, including the client’s: age, maturity, intellectual capacity, and mental and emotional health and development at the time of the offense; family, home and community environment; familial or peer pressure; characteristics attributable to youth on judgment; and more. The first juvenile life without parole hearings under the new legislation and court orders began last summer and continue today. Under the new process, the juvenile parole hearings have gone from an 86% denial rate to a 100% grant rate. While this is good news, children in the US deserve so much better than spending more than thirty years in a cage without hope.
Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. Moreover, Article 40 of the convention states that every child alleged as, accused of or recognized as having infringed criminal law should always be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth. Science supports this approach. Research shows that more than 90% of all juvenile offenders desist from crime by their mid-20s and predicting future violence from adolescent criminal behavior, even serious criminal behavior, is unreliable and prone to error. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has noted that personality traits of adolescents are less fixed than in adults, and this makes it difficult to infer that even heinous criminal behavior during adolescence is evidence of an “irretrievably depraved” character. Moreover, the Court has also noted that adolescents are better candidates for rehabilitation because of their ability to grow and mature.
Our juvenile life without parole clients are amazing. They are working on college degrees, volunteering thousands of hours to restorative justice programs and puppies for parole, helping friends through crises, and holding the hands of friends as they pass away from COVID in prison. One of our clients was released last month after 30 years in prison and he is thriving. Others are still waiting for release. In the meantime, they dream of driving a car, owning a food truck, flying on an airplane, having children, seeing the new ferris wheel in St. Louis, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, and more.
In 2019, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child released General Comment 24 on children's rights in the justice system. The Committee recognized the need for a new comment as a "result of the promulgation of international and regional standards, the Committee’s jurisprudence, new knowledge about child and adolescent development, and evidence of effective practices, including those relating to restorative justice." In General Comment 24, the Committee recommended strictly limiting the deprivation of liberty for children only as a last resort. The US is far, far from that wonderful vision for juvenile justice. But, at least the Biden administration could move the US in the right direction by supporting recommendations to end juvenile life without parole sentences.