There’s Only One Country That Hasn’t Ratified the Convention on Children's Rights: US

Sign in the window of the abandoned Harris County Juvenile Detention Center in Houston, Texas (Credit: Randall Pugh/Flickr)

We find ourselves commemorating yet another anniversary for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most comprehensive human rights treaty on children’s rights and notably the most widely ratified treaty since its introduction over 25 years ago. The treaty has been ratified by every country with one notable exception — the United States, which never even sent it to the Senate for consent and approval. 

Until this year, the United States was one of three countries — the other two being Somalia and South Sudan — that had failed to ratify the CRC. And while it was embarrassing enough to be in this limited company, this year, our fellow outliers ratified the convention.

So now we’re completely on our own.

On the one hand, the continued resistance to ratifying this critical and fairly conventional treaty is baffling. Both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations participated in the treaty negotiations and contributed provisions. The treaty incorporates much from U.S. law and practices and does not represent an assault on American sovereignty as some have warned. Much of the opposition to its ratification emanates from the right and has been based on incorrect assumptions about its implications for U.S. law and how the convention affects U.S. sovereignty and our interpretation of federalism.

While there is no good reason for the United States not to ratify the CRC, there are several reasons why we urgently need it. Ratifying the convention is not just about saving face in the international community — it will require us to confront some hard truths about the exceptionally bad way we treat children in the United States and to work to bring our laws and practices in line with human rights.

The most obvious arena in which the United States denies children their human rights —and their childhood — is the criminal justice system, which American children encounter far too early and with devastating consequences. From a young age, many children — particularly students of color and those with disabilities — are funneled out of the schoolroom and into prison for childhood behavior. Children as young as six years old have been removed from the classroom in handcuffs for throwing temper tantrums. Others have been arrested for engaging in a tug-of-war with a teacher or doodling on a desk.

This early and unnecessary police intervention puts kids on a harrowing path. Juvenile prisons are not centers of rehabilitation. As Vincent Schiraldi stated in a recent New York Times article, even in juvenile facilities, “horrific institutional conditions are common, not exceptional.” Removed from their families, children in these prisons are denied a meaningful education and adequate mental health treatment, have been held in solitary confinement, and are sometimes subject to physical and sexual abuse.

Across the country, states treat very young children just like adults in the criminal justice system — with the same punishments ahead of them. Fourteen states have no minimum age for when a child can be prosecuted and punished as an adult. In some cases, children as young as eight years old have been tried as adults for committing a crime. Children confined in adult prisons are in an even more vulnerable situation, forced to grow up too fast in a dangerous environment where they are significantly more at risk for sexual assault and suicide.

Over the past two months, I’ve spoken with dozens of prisoners who were tried and sentenced as adults when they were children and who, decades later, are still in prison. They spoke of the terror they experienced — for some, their first time away from their parents and their first time incarcerated — arriving in prison, surrounded by grown men and guards, feeling that they had to grow up and defend themselves or else die.

The individuals I’ve spoken with are facing life in prison, hoping one day to rejoin their communities. Many though have already been in prison for 30-40 years. “I wake up every day expecting to be released,” one man told me. He has been in prison for murder for 30 years, since he was 15 years old. “You need that hope or you’d be a dead man walking.”

For thousands of children, however, that hope was extinguished when they were sentenced. The United States remains the only country in the world to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a severe punishment that is categorically prohibited under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. While in recent years the U.S. Supreme Court has limited the application of this life and death sentence to children, around 2,500 people are currently serving this sentence for crimes they were involved in years ago as children.

Right now there is growing support across party lines to end juvenile life without parole. In the past several years, 13 states have moved to eliminate this draconian sentence, and the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee recently introduced a bill that would end juvenile life without parole in the federal system and provide critical due process protections for children sentenced as adults in sentencing and resentencing. An important and overdue step, this law would only apply to children sentenced in the federal system.

For the rest of them, implementing the ideals of the Convention on the Rights of the Child might be their only hope. 

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Anonymous

Did they do an adult crime.?

Anonymous

Ignorant question!

Balance News

Thanks Sarah Mehta for enlightening readers that US is the only country that has not ratified the Convention on Child Rights. Can you also please enlighten us on why the ACLU doesn't think possession of child pornography is a crime, and why it supports NAMBLA? Why does the ACLU have such double standards?

Anonymous

Thanks Sarah Mehta for enlightening me that the US is the only country that has not ratified the Convention on Children's Rights! Can you also please enlighten me why the ACLU doesn't think possession of child pornography is a crime? While you are at it, please also explain why the ACLU supports possible child-exploiters like NAMBLA?

the boss

they don't they want freedom of speach for EVERYONE

MelissaB

The United States Policies on Human Rights within the US say alot about our countries priorities. The US has to form a National Policy on Child Abuse and Custody, while we have demanded federal oversight hearings into the safety of our Nations Children who are being beaten and molested with Impunity. 1 in 3 children are Sexually Assaulted before the Age of 18 and our public policies do little to change the course of these horrific crimes. The Justice department reports that only 10% of children are ever protected from further abuse, as many are court ordered to live with the battering or sexually abusive fathers. The US continues its patriarchal rules and entitlement programs for fathers that pervert the course of Justice. Mothers are fighting for liberty rights so they can defend their right to motherhood and protect their children. http://mothersoflostchildren.org/2015/12/constitutional-rights-do-not-ap... Lastly, The USA record on Domestic Violence, violating rules within the Geneva Convention, and we have not Ratified the ERA!!! Patriarchal Societies hold tight to the right to Dominate and own Women and Children.

Anonymous

Says the same crowd that thinks the standard of evidence for rape accusations should be guilty until proven innocent!
Take your Napoleonic Code elsewhere.

Anonymous

I do agree with the harsh judicial systeming of our children. If kids miss 3 days of school and forget to turn in their excuses for the absences the next thing the schools are doing is dragging the kids through the court system. In the elementary school age, this is absolutely rediculous. Also, my teenage son was the best behaved child until the school started dragging him through the court system. After that he gained a severe chip on his shoulder. Somehow he got a hold of moon shine alcohol and at school he got drunk. He didn't even try to hide it from the school. That's how effective the court systems are with our children. If anything the court system TURNS our children into criminals by intervening and trying to play parent to the nations kids. What I have been telling people is this, If the courts and schools want to play parents to everybodys kids and they feel us parents are not responsible enough, as if god doesn't know what he's doing. Then we need to drop all of our kids off, all at the same time, drop them off to these officials. When they have 500 kids each to raise, they will change their tune about what they have been inflicting upon us parents. Poor or Rich, We ALL love our kids regardless and these FAKE studies that poor people are terrible parents is just that FAKE. A hundred years ago when EVERYBODY was poor, people loved their kids and the old timers will tell you the new age people today, that their time in life was the best time in life. They all say life was nice and simple. Easier. We think of the 0.1% back alley hill billy who use to beat his son bobby Joe over the head with his pix axe and we label the whole nation as such abusers. That's complete nonsense. Even wild animals protect and sacrifice their own lives for their young, Even WILD ANIMALS. Think about that. We are intelligent humans, we do protect our children. Those studies are fake studies that claim poverty stricken people are more abusive than the average.

Anonymous

i DID NOT KNOW THAT SOUTHSUDAN AND SOMALIA HAD RATIFIED. LAST I CHECKED WAS A YEAR AGO.

Anonymous

My son was 13 years old when he committed his first crime . He received 18 months in juvenile prison. He returned home at almost 16 years old. He got with the wrong crowd and ended back inside 3-9 years in adult prison . He returned home without the skills to survive. and went back for another 3-9 now he is 37 years old and he has had two or three birthday out and one mothers day out of custody now he is up for parole in two years what does he have to look foward to

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