While their peers are finding dates for prom, submitting college applications, and starting families, over 2,500 prisoners sit behind bars in the US without the possibility of parole. What makes these prisoners unique is that they were all sentenced for crimes committed while they were children.
The US is the only country in the world that pursues life imprisonment without parole against children – and it does so regularly. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child expressly prohibits life imprisonment without the possibility of release committed by people under 18 years old. All countries except the USA and Somalia have ratified the Convention.
Americans under the age of 18 are barred from many activities including voting, buying alcohol, gambling, or consenting to most forms of medical treatment, yet children as young as 11 at the time of the crime have faced life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. This needs to change.
Amnesty’s new report “This is where I’m going to be when I die” illuminates this often neglected issue through the stories of three individuals who will spend the entirety of their adult life behind bars – Jacqueline Montanez, David Young, and Christi Cheramie.
Christi was convicted of murdering her fiancé’s great aunt at the age of 16 but has maintained her fiancé carried out the murder. A psychiatrist described Christi as “depressed, dependent, and insecure” and as “fearful of crossing” her fiancé. She experienced a long history of sexual abuse and was hospitalized for a suicide attempt at the age of 13. Her case was transferred to an adult court before a hearing could be held that would have considered factors such as her mental health and amenability to rehabilitation. Eighteen years later, Christi is now 33 years old, has obtained her high school equivalency diploma, and has a degree in agricultural studies. Her warden describes her “worthy of a second chance”.
Christi is not alone. In the USA, life without parole can be imposed on juvenile offenders as a mandatory punishment – without consideration of mitigating factors such as history of abuse or trauma, degree of involvement in the crime, mental health status or amenability to rehabilitation. A 2005 study found that nearly two-thirds of males and three-quarters of females in the juvenile justice system meet the criteria for one or more psychiatric disorders.
For most of these juvenile offenders life without parole was their first-ever criminal conviction.
Juvenile offenders suffer greatly in adult prisons. One study found that juveniles had the highest rate of suicide among inmates. The study also found that in 2005, 21 percent of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence cases were committed against juveniles who only make up about 1 percent of the prison population. Another study found that juveniles are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities.
Racial biases are pervasive throughout our justice system and juvenile sentencing is not immune. In fact, black youth receive life without parole sentences an estimated ten times more than white youth.
In May 2010, the US Supreme Court prohibited life without parole sentences for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles. The Court described these sentences as “an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile”, because a young offender will generally serve more years and a greater percentage of his or her life in prison than an older offender. This month, the Court agreed to reconsider the sentence for crimes involving murder with a decision expected by this summer.
While crimes committed by juvenile offenders should not go without repercussions, the law should reflect children’s behavioral malleability and capacity for positive change. It is clear that the US criminal justice system is in dire need of reform. We cannot continue to claim we espouse freedom, equality, and integrity while we sentence children to decades of abuse and inevitable death behind bars.
Emily Guthrie contributed research to this post.