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Sentencing Juveniles in the United States
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By James Lee Dold

In the United States, unlike any place else in the world, children are sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth has been a leading force in working with advocates, litigators, and those who have been incarcerated to abolish these unfair and outrageous sentences.

These death-in-prison sentences for children are in part the result of policymakers’ reactions to the “super-predator theory” that emerged in the early 1990s. Criminologists, responding to a rise in youth crime, predicted an uncontrolled crime wave committed by “fatherless, godless” young people who would have no regard for their victims and no concern about the consequences of their actions. Lawmakers reacted to the super-predator theory by easing the transfer process of young people into the adult system, subjecting them to adult penalties. This coincided with lawmakers’ creation of longer and harsher penalties for adults, making it far easier to harness children with these extreme sentences.

Meanwhile, the juvenile crime wave never materialized, and instead youth crime has fallen to historic lows since that time. The originators of the super-predator theory also have recanted their prophecies. But despite their changes of heart, the impact remains: approximately 2,500 American children have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This is in addition to the thousands of other youth given extremely long sentences that are the functional equivalent of life in prison.

Research shows children’s brains don’t fully develop until their mid-20s – and most parents know this from experience. Because of their youthful brains, children are less able than adults to consider the long-term consequences of their actions, control their impulses, or avoid pressure from peers and adults. This also means that children can much more easily change and rehabilitate—reinforcing why they shouldn’t receive prison sentences for life.

International bodies and the U.S. Supreme Court have quite clearly spoken out against this practice. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child expressly prohibits life-without-parole sentences for children, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment recently blasted the United States for being the only country that continues the practice. The U.S. Supreme Court, relying in part on adolescent development research, has said that children are “constitutionally different” from adults. 

Citing these “characteristics of childhood,” the Court has scaled back the use of extreme sentences in three recent decisions. In 2005, the Court abolished the juvenile death penalty.  In 2010, the Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose a life-without-parole sentence for a non-homicide crime committed by a person younger than 18. And the Court ruled in 2012 that automatic life-without-parole sentences for children are cruel and unusual punishment, and required judges and juries to consider the mitigating factors of youth anytime a child faces a potential life sentence.

In addition to conflicting with what we know about children’s capacity for decision-making and future growth, these death-in-prison sentences disproportionately impact the most vulnerable youth in our society. Black teens are sentenced to life without parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth. Nearly 80 percent of juvenile lifers reported violence in their homes, and 54.1 percent experienced weekly violence in their neighborhoods. 80 percent of girls and nearly half of all children who received these sentences had been physically abused and 77 percent of girls and 20 percent of all juvenile lifers said they had been sexually abused. 

The good news is that several states are making changes. Thirteen state legislatures have approved measures eliminating life-without-parole sentences for children, including eight since the Court’s 2012 Miller ruling. Several others have significantly limited the use of the sentence. Throughout the country a number of states have passed and are considering major reforms as well.

These changes have taken place in such disparate places as Texas, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Wyoming. Just last year, a lawmaker who described himself as a conservative Republican was the lead sponsor of a bill in West Virginia that became the nation’s most comprehensive juvenile sentencing reform legislation, eliminating life without parole for children and creating parole eligibility after they have served no more than 15 years. And this past May, Nevada and Vermont eliminated the sentence and created review opportunities for all youth sentenced in adult court. These new laws and court rulings will impact not only those youth sentenced to life without parole, but thousands of others sent to prison when they were too young to buy cigarettes or vote.

Simultaneously, there is growing support for reform among policymakers, opinion leaders, newspaper editorial boards, and others. More than 150 national and international organizations have called for an end to these extreme sentences.9  The American Bar Association and Pope Francis also have called for an end to life-without-parole sentences for children.

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth advances this movement by working as a convener to bring together advocates, litigators, national partners and directly impacted individuals, such as formerly incarcerated youth, family members of people who died as a result of violence committed by youth and family members of people serving these sentences. We also work with advocates who are working to pass legislation and provide guidance to litigators representing youth who may be sentenced to life without parole or people who have opportunities for review. We also engage in public education to both make sure people know that these sentences exist and change the narratives surrounding the people serving them. We have developed a national network of formerly incarcerated youth who serve as living examples of children’s capacity for change.

We are poised for reform as the issues of over-incarceration gain momentum and visibility in the United States, and our country searches for its moral center in how it treats our children. We know that all children deserve a second chance, and that these extreme sentencing laws should never have been passed. Brain research, international law and standards, and common sense about teenagers show us that these sentences are inappropriate and not the best way to address the needs of our children. We will strive to implement accountability measures for youth that are age-appropriate, focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society and make common sense as we work to ensure laws that forever cage people who were convicted of crimes as children are eliminated.

James Lee Dold serves as advocacy director for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY). In this role, James leads the CFSY advocacy team in national legislative efforts to eliminate juvenile life without parole and other extreme sentences for youth by working in partnership with coalition members, elected officials and other policymakers.

James is a graduate of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and the University of Maryland’s Francis Carey School of Law. Prior to joining the CFSY, James served as senior policy counsel for the Polaris Project, where he led successful state legislative campaigns that resulted in the passage of 40 new anti-human trafficking laws across the country. He received the inaugural 2013 Professor Louis Henkin Award by Rightslink at Columbia Law School, as well as the Josephine Butler Award for Law Policy Development for his efforts in advancing human rights protections.

A life-long advocate for disenfranchised and marginalized members of our society, James Dold’s passion for social justice developed while growing up in inner city Las Vegas with his parents and siblings. While in law school, James represented low-income individuals whose public benefits had been unjustly terminated or denied and also served as a law clerk at the ACLU of Maryland where he defended the First Amendment rights of street performers and religious groups. During this time he also interned in the offices of Maryland Delegate Dana Stein and U.S. Senator Ben Cardin.

Read more articles about capital punishment around the world in the new issue of International Affairs Forum available here.

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