In the United States each year, children as young as 13 are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without any opportunity for release. Approximately 2,570 children are sentenced to juvenile life without parole or “JLWOP” in the United States. Despite a global consensus that children cannot be held to the same standards of responsibility as adults and recognition that children are entitled to special protection and treatment, the United States allows children to be treated and punished as adults.
The Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that juveniles convicted of murder cannot be subject to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Twenty nine states currently have such laws. The Court’s rulings in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs build on a decision two years prior that juveniles could not be sentenced under any circumstances to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses. Even when convicted of murder, the Court said, judges must be allowed to take a juvenile’s age into account (along with other relevant circumstances) in deciding the appropriate punishment. The Court specifically noted, moreover, that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest penalty will be uncommon.”
In 2010, the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine Michigan inmates who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed when they were minors and who are being denied the possibility of parole. The lawsuit charges that denying the plaintiffs an opportunity for release constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and violates their constitutional right to a fair hearing to demonstrate their maturity and rehabilitation as well as customary international human rights law that prohibits the imposition of life without parole or release sentences on anyone who commits an offense under the age of 18. A hearing was held on April 21, 2011 on the government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and our opposition to that motion. On July 15, 2011, a federal judge ruled that the case can proceed.
In March 2014, the ACLU urged the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to rule that sentencing children to mandatory life without the possibility of parole violates the Declaration of the Rights of Man and universal human rights principles. This hearing was held in response to a February 2006 petition from the ACLU and several other organizations to the IACHR, alleging that the human rights of juveniles sentenced to life without parole were being violated.
Supreme Court Finds Life Sentence for Juveniles Who Did Not Kill Unconstitutional
In Graham v. Florida, the U.S. struck down as unconstitutional the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide. Although the court found that the state need not guarantee the offender eventual release, it held that if such a sentence is imposed on a juvenile it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.
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