10 Mar 2015

U.S. slammed by U.N. as only country in the world that still sentences children to prison for life without parole.

The United States was singled out Monday by a United Nations expert on torture for being the only country in the world that continues to sentence children to life in prison without parole.
“The vast majority of states have taken note of the international human rights requirements regarding life imprisonment of children without the possibility of release,” Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, said in his report, before noting that the United States is the only country to continue the practice.
A sentence of life without parole means life and death in prison — a practice considered cruel and inhumane punishment for juveniles under both international and U.S. law.
“Life sentences or sentences of an extreme length have a disproportionate impact on children and cause physical and psychological harm that amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment,” the report reads.
Dr. Louis Kraus, the chairman of the juvenile justice reform committee at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, called the practice “a devastating process to even conceptualize.”
“These kids have not developed. These are eighth-graders and, in some states, younger than that,” he said.
Issuing life sentences for children is banned under numerous international laws, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child — which the U.S. and South Sudan are the only two states to have signed but not ratified. Also, a U.N. oversight body has found that the sentence violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, since youths of color are more likely to receive the sentence than white offenders.
The U.S. Mission to the U.N. did not return a request for comment by time of publication.
“The toughest part is that the crimes children might have committed, as devastating as they may have been, are really in unformed brains,” said Kraus. “These teenagers are not the same as their adult counterparts will be. Many of them are not going to be that same person. They're going to show greater insight, better empathy, less impulsivity, better reasoning ability in terms of understanding the short- and long-term ramifications of their behavior.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Miller v. Alabama in 2012, outlawed mandatory sentencing of life without parole for children under 18, arguing that the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
Still, while the Supreme Court has ruled that sentences of mandatory life without parole are unconstitutional, judges at the state level can make sentencing decisions based on the circumstances in which the crime was committed. About 2,500 people in the United States are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of release for crimes they committed as children.
“The big issue is whether that decision from the Supreme Court [on mandatory sentencing] has a retroactive effect so that persons who are serving life in prison without parole can benefit from that,” said Steven Watts, the senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union human rights program. 
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have banned life sentences without parole for juveniles; Hawaii and West Virginia joined the roster in 2014. Earlier this month, the American Bar Association called for a complete end to life without parole for children.
“In the 1990s, [courts] increased the numbers of offenses for which children could be sentenced as if they were adults. They were charged, prosecuted — as young as 14 — charged, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced as if they were adults,” said Watts, “That comes from a debunked theory from back in the 1990s that there are these superpredators, incorrigible children, that it was built into their DNA that they would do the wrong things.”
“We’re still living with those laws, enacted at that time, and it happens to a degree in the U.S. that doesn't happen anywhere else in the world,” he said.


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