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U.S. Out of Step with the Rest of the World

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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November 9, 2009

Today, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. In both cases, the petitioners argued that when a child is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, it violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Both Sullivan and Graham committed crimes in which no-one was killed: when he was 13, Joe Sullivan raped a woman, and at 16, Terrance Graham committed armed burglary. Sullivan and Graham are sentenced to die in prison. (Read more about the Graham and Sullivan cases and about the international human rights law angle here.) (PDF)

“A death sentence is what the judge gave me. A long slow death. I would have rather been taken out and shot. I did not understand why I could not go to a place for kids my age.”

Learn Barbara’s story here.

In the United States, approximately 2,570 children are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Children as young as 13 have been sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without a second chance and an opportunity for release.

We are the only country in the world where children are serving such cruel sentences.

In February 2006, the ACLU submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) challenging the practice of life without parole sentencing for children under universal human rights principles. The petition alleges that the human rights of children sentenced to life without parolesentences in the state of Michigan have been violated. It asks the IACHR to review Michigan sentencing laws as they are applied to children and find them in violation of the American Declaration of the Rights of Man and other universal human rights principles. Read the petition here.

In sentencing children to life sentences without the possibility of parole, the United States is out of step with the rest of the world. As a champion of children’s human rights, we should be doing so much better. We must ensure that the most vulnerable members of our society, our children, only receive fair sentences for the crimes they commit and that they are given an opportunity for rehabilitation.

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