In the United States, dozens of 13- and 14-year-old children have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole after being prosecuted as adults. While the United States Supreme Court recently declared in Roper v. Simmons that death by execution is unconstitutional for juveniles, young children continue to be sentenced to imprisonment until death with very little scrutiny or review. A study by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has documented 73 cases where children 13 and 14 years of age have been condemned to death in prison. Almost all of these kids currently lack legal representation and in most of these cases the propriety and constitutionality of their
extreme sentences have never been reviewed.
Most of the sentences imposed on these children were mandatory: the court could not give any consideration to the child’s age or life history. Some of the children were charged with crimes that do not involve homicide or even injury; many were convicted for offenses where older teenagers or adults were involved and primarily responsible for the crime; nearly two-thirds are children of color.
Over 2225 juveniles (age 17 or younger) in the United States have been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. All of these cases raise important legal, penological, and moral issues. However, EJI believes that such a harsh sentence for the youngest offenders – children who are 13 and 14 – is cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Consti-tution. These children should be resentenced to parole-eligible sentences as soon as possible. Sentences of life imprisonment with no parole also violate international law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world except the United States and Somalia.
EJI has launched a litigation campaign to challenge death in prison sentences imposed on young children. This report is intended to illuminate this cruel and unusual punishment inflicted on children, particularly for those who have been without legal help for so long that the procedural obstacles to winning relief in court will be formidable. Increased public awareness, coupled with informed activity by advocacy groups, will be necessary to reform policies that reflect a lack of perspective and hope for young children.
Many young children in America are imperiled by abuse, neglect, domestic and community violence, and poverty. Without effective intervention and help, these children suffer, struggle, and fall into despair and hopelessness. Some young teens cannot manage the emotional, social, and psychological challenges of adolescence and eventually engage in destructive and violent behavior. Sadly, many states have ignored the crisis and dysfunction that creates child delinquency and instead have subjected kids to further victimization and abuse in the adult criminal justice system.
The imposition of life imprisonment without parole sentences on the 13- and 14-year-olds documented in this report reveals the misguided consequences of thoughtlessly surrendering children to the adult criminal justice system. Condemning young children to die in prison is cruel and incompatible with fundamental standards of decency that require protection for children. These sentences undermine the efforts of parents, teachers, lawyers, activists, legislators, policymakers, judges, child advocates, clergy, students, and ordinary citizens to ensure the well-being of young children in our society and they feed the despair and violence that traumatizes too many of our communities and young people. The denial of all hope to a child whose brain – much less his character or personality – is not yet developed cannot be reconciled with society’s commitment to help, guide, and nurture our children.
Life imprisonment without parole for young children should be abolished. States that impose death in prison sentences on young children should immediately eliminate the practice and provide opportunities for parole to people who are currently sentenced to imprisonment until death for crimes committed at 13 or 14. Recent legal developments, international law, and medical insights on child development provide powerful support for ending life without parole sentences for young children.
There is an urgent need to change current criminal justice policy and institute reforms that protect young children from death in prison sentences. The plight of the condemned children in this report is not disconnected from the fate of all children, who frequently need correction, guidance, and direction, but always need hope.