More than three and a half years ago, we wrote about the disgraceful case of Christi Cheramie, a 16 year old sentenced to life without parole for a murder she did not commit. Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to find out whether Christi has since been released. (And we would value knowing.)
Now a bi-partisan group of U.S. senators have announced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, new criminal justice reform legislation that would end extreme sentences for youth, including life without parole, in the federal justice system at least.
This bill has been in the works for quite some time, and we are thrilled that senators included this provision: we appreciate Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) for their leadership of this effort on both sides of the aisle. Thanks also to Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) should be noted for their vital support.
This proposal is consistent with national trends; fourteen states have banned life-without-parole sentences for children. Nine of those have occurred within the last three years, including laws passed this year in Connecticut and Nevada which become effective October 1.
Progress has been painfully slow. Over twenty years after the 1989 UN General Assembly vote to open the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) for signature and ratification by UN member states, the United States remains one of only two UN members not to have ratified it. The other is Somalia. The Convention outlaws life without parole sentences for minors.
The USA is the only country in the world that regularly sentences children to life without parole. Although plenty of other countries, including Australia, the UK and France, have life sentences for juveniles tried as adults, they are subject to review, on the understanding that even the gravest debts to society incurred by adolescents can eventually be repaid.
“The propriety of the sentence is, in many ways, uniquely American,” says Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.
“We are much more comfortable with this idea that somebody is permanently irredeemable or beyond rehabilitation, or that they have forfeited forever their right to be free.” This is the principle of justice as revenge rather than justice for the protection of society or for the rehabilitation of the offender.
Around 2,500 people are currently serving strict life terms for offences committed before they were old enough to vote, serve on a jury, or legally buy cigarettes.
Even if the law explicitly rules our eternal sentences for children, there are ways round the restriction. In Pennsylvania, for example, criminal homicide is excluded from juvenile law. But last October, a ten-year-old was charged with murder, in the adult system, after reportedly confessing to killing a ninety-year-old woman. There are around five hundred people locked up indefinitely for youthful crimes in the state – more than anywhere else.
In the last decade, the American legal system has started to recognise that children tried as adults for serious offences merit special treatment. In a landmark 2005 decision, Roper v Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death because, by their nature, they are less culpable than adults.
Teenagers are not adults. A simple principle, but one that is applied patchily.
Teenagers are less able to assess risks and consequences and more susceptible to peer pressure, noted Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion. “From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed,” he wrote.
Five years later, in Graham v Florida, the court held that the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution also prohibits life without parole sentences for minors who commit crimes other than murder, citing emerging neuroscience showing that adolescent brains are not yet fully developed, particularly in areas associated with impulse control.
“What the court has said is that kids are fundamentally different, that their unique characteristics as children have to be accounted for, and that our harshest of punishments are not appropriate.” says Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth.
In one landmark case (Miller v Alabama) the Supreme Court decided that mandatory sentences for children should be quashed and the offenders re-tried and re-sentenced. But in states that have begun reviewing old life sentences, (it is a very slow process), many defendants are being re-sentenced, in effect, to life without parole. The Governor of Iowa, for example, simply commuted the sentences of all affected prisoners to a minimum of sixty years, regardless of their crime or the extent of their rehabilitation.
A number of organisations have approved policy resolutions against life-without-parole sentences for children. This body of support illustrates the growing momentum and strong coalition against the use of these extreme sentences for youth.
American Bar Association – resolution enacted February 2015
“With the adoption of Resolution 107C, the American Bar Association has sent a clear message to the legal community and policymakers across the country that children should never be sentenced to die in prison,” said ABA President, William C. Hubbard.
American Probation and Parole Association – resolution enacted February 2015
In addition to calling for an elimination of life-without-parole sentences for children, the resolution also recommends that governments, “provide youthful offenders with meaningful periodic opportunities for release” and “acknowledge the mitigating factors of age.”
American Correctional Association – resolution enacted August 2014
The American Correctional Association opposes life without parole for children in this resolution, and also states that, “youthful offenders convicted of serious and/or violent crimes should be held accountable in a way that reflects human rights, values and moral beliefs” and that “youthful offenders have much greater potential for rehabilitation and should be provided every opportunity to heal and rehabilitate.”
National Association of Counties – resolution enacted July 2014
This resolution supports eliminating life without parole and asks that lawmaking bodies across the country do so as well. From the resolution, “We therefore, call upon State Legislatures across the country and the U.S. Congress to enact legislation that abolishes life without parole for children and provides them with meaningful and periodic sentencing reviews. These legislative changes should be applied both retroactively and prospectively so that no child is allowed to have their human rights violated because of when they were sentenced.”
Let us hope that the USA’s legislators put an end to this monstrosity before much longer. After all, the principle is pretty straightforward has been so for centuries.
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Merchant of Venice