Locking Up Children For Life In The US

Christi Cheramie

Christi Cheramie was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole at the age of 16 in 1994.

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.

juvenile life without parole infographicAmnesty’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.

Take action for Christi Cheramie and other individuals by participating in our global Writeathon.

Emily Guthrie contributed research to this post.

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33 thoughts on “Locking Up Children For Life In The US

  1. It's too bad that sexual discrimination played such a role in the expectation of this woman (Christi) that the truth that was evident in her fear of her ex-fiancee wasn't taken into consideration, nor that she was seen as the abused woman that she was! While her ex-fiancee runs off free, she was given a harsh sentence based on his actions! The blame for men's behaviors started in the Garden of Eden when Adam (who the Bible reports to have been standing RIGHT THERE WITH EVE!), an it hasn't stopped since! Society not only continues to blame women for men's actions, but women are also shown to receive harsher sentences than men when it comes to crimes such as this! SAD, SAD, SAD!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. It’s too bad that sexual discrimination played such a role in the expectation of this woman (Christi) that the truth that was evident in her fear of her ex-fiancee wasn’t taken into consideration, nor that she was seen as the abused woman that she was! While her ex-fiancee runs off free, she was given a harsh sentence based on his actions! The blame for men’s behaviors started in the Garden of Eden when Adam (who the Bible reports to have been standing RIGHT THERE WITH EVE!), an it hasn’t stopped since! Society not only continues to blame women for men’s actions, but women are also shown to receive harsher sentences than men when it comes to crimes such as this! SAD, SAD, SAD!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. This is an atrocity. Children's brains are not fully developed to the point that they can make reasonable decisions. Many have suffered unbelievable tortures at the hands of supposed "responsible adults" and violence is the only way of life they have ever known. These children need treatment, not a life in prison, only to be subjected to further abuse and torture.

  4. I have sent a postcard to Christi (you can find her address from the amnestyusa.org site) and also wrote to the appropriate authorities expressing my concern.But Christi is, apparantely, just one of TOO MANY children/adolescents in prisons throughout the USA. This is appalling – weare not living in the Middle Ages after all!

  5. This is an atrocity. Children’s brains are not fully developed to the point that they can make reasonable decisions. Many have suffered unbelievable tortures at the hands of supposed “responsible adults” and violence is the only way of life they have ever known. These children need treatment, not a life in prison, only to be subjected to further abuse and torture.

  6. I have sent a postcard to Christi (you can find her address from the amnestyusa.org site) and also wrote to the appropriate authorities expressing my concern.But Christi is, apparantely, just one of TOO MANY children/adolescents in prisons throughout the USA. This is appalling – weare not living in the Middle Ages after all!

  7. How could we call "as US government" for peace & human rights as we do send our troops over seas to die for what the government is calling and they are abusing the children here.What happened to the rehabilitation?!

  8. How could we call “as US government” for peace & human rights as we do send our troops over seas to die for what the government is calling and they are abusing the children here.What happened to the rehabilitation?!

  9. Juveniles convicted of crimes are sent to juveniles facilities until they are adults at which time they are then transferred to adult facilities.

  10. "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." Like what- Oppositional Defiance Disorder? You have a case here, why clutter it with this nonsense?

  11. Juveniles convicted of crimes are sent to juveniles facilities until they are adults at which time they are then transferred to adult facilities.

  12. “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.” Like what- Oppositional Defiance Disorder? You have a case here, why clutter it with this nonsense?

  13. Isn't this insane??? All this country does is make laws that make no sense. and a parent goes to jail for giving a child a spanking when the child did something wrong??? a child will heal from a spanking and will most likely learn something good from a spanking, but what the government does will ruin a child forever. take away parental discipline and the teaching of our churches and give them this??? Our children??? How many of us did NOT do something wrong as a child simply because we didn't understand? Show killings of every nature on tv that is so gross.. even an unstable adult copies thes actions, Children do copy what they see. What do you expect???
    May God hsve mercy on the fools who make these laws..'they know not what they do'

  14. Isn’t this insane??? All this country does is make laws that make no sense. and a parent goes to jail for giving a child a spanking when the child did something wrong??? a child will heal from a spanking and will most likely learn something good from a spanking, but what the government does will ruin a child forever. take away parental discipline and the teaching of our churches and give them this??? Our children??? How many of us did NOT do something wrong as a child simply because we didn’t understand? Show killings of every nature on tv that is so gross.. even an unstable adult copies thes actions, Children do copy what they see. What do you expect???
    May God hsve mercy on the fools who make these laws..’they know not what they do’

  15. For some reason, in the past forty years, this country loves to put people in prison. Whether it is an offshoot of the war on drugs, i don't know, but our prison populations are many times more than most other countries.

  16. For some reason, in the past forty years, this country loves to put people in prison. Whether it is an offshoot of the war on drugs, i don’t know, but our prison populations are many times more than most other countries.

  17. Dats sad dey make them laws what if it was one of their own the law would change ASAP dats the truth dey r some sad ass people who dnt have no heart but the Lord will deal with them

  18. I am politically conservative. However,above anything else,I am very pro human. I do not feel children should be sentenced to life without parole. They do deserve to be punished when they take a life,the victim will never get a chance to have a life. However,the decisions we make at 11 or 16 or even 18 are not the same decisions we would make as adults and nobody should have their whole lives taken for something they did as children. In most of these cases an adult was involved and children are easily manipulated. It sickens and saddens me that in America,in 2011,we are throwing away these children when most of them never had a chance to begin with. I would really like to see this law over turned.

  19. Dats sad dey make them laws what if it was one of their own the law would change ASAP dats the truth dey r some sad ass people who dnt have no heart but the Lord will deal with them

  20. I am politically conservative. However,above anything else,I am very pro human. I do not feel children should be sentenced to life without parole. They do deserve to be punished when they take a life,the victim will never get a chance to have a life. However,the decisions we make at 11 or 16 or even 18 are not the same decisions we would make as adults and nobody should have their whole lives taken for something they did as children. In most of these cases an adult was involved and children are easily manipulated. It sickens and saddens me that in America,in 2011,we are throwing away these children when most of them never had a chance to begin with. I would really like to see this law over turned.

  21. I do believe "children" should spend the rest of their lives behind bars for commiting a murder or disturbing crime. If they take away that sentence kids are allowed to go out and murder and someday be released after being institutionalized for decades, causing even more problems on society? What about the sociopath children that theres no chance of rehabilitation? At 16 years old this Christi was old enough to know better. Unless the child is mentally retarded to a degree where they didn't know better, get lost with this non sense of freeing MURDERERS.

    • Joselyn – She obviously was mentally ill. Not only that, but she was abused by her fiance. These factors weren't even taken into consideration. It could have been her fiance that committed that murder, but the court ignored that factor and convicted her. Moreover, she has educated herself to the point where she has a college degree. If she is motivated enough to do that despite no immediate prospect of coming out, why not give her a second chance? I'll tell you one thing. There was an eighteen year old man in New Zealand who committed murder. In jail, he went from being unable to read to gaining a PHD, because another murderer coached him. His graduation photo was on the front page of the paper a couple of months ago and it showed the miracles that God can indeed perform, not that you would be able to see that as you obviously think that all people who ever do anything wrong should be thrown away so that you can feel better.

  22. I do believe “children” should spend the rest of their lives behind bars for commiting a murder or disturbing crime. If they take away that sentence kids are allowed to go out and murder and someday be released after being institutionalized for decades, causing even more problems on society? What about the sociopath children that theres no chance of rehabilitation? At 16 years old this Christi was old enough to know better. Unless the child is mentally retarded to a degree where they didn’t know better, get lost with this non sense of freeing MURDERERS.

  23. A 16, 18 and even some 20something people do not always have the experience, life skills, or just plain maturity to know how to handle themselves, make appropriate decisions. To give any child a life sentence in an adult facility is stupid. A child who commits a crime needs more mental health counseling than instruction on criminal how to's from an adult cell mate. SOCIETY IS FOOTING THE BILL. In this case, was the fiance ever considered the murderer? She might be telling the truth. Maybe the government should let parents discipline there children rather than sending DCF to accuse them of child abuse. To many people in other peoples business for spite or self justice. We are becoming a society of bullies and gossipers who ruin other peoples lives for their own satisfaction.

  24. A 16, 18 and even some 20something people do not always have the experience, life skills, or just plain maturity to know how to handle themselves, make appropriate decisions. To give any child a life sentence in an adult facility is stupid. A child who commits a crime needs more mental health counseling than instruction on criminal how to’s from an adult cell mate. SOCIETY IS FOOTING THE BILL. In this case, was the fiance ever considered the murderer? She might be telling the truth. Maybe the government should let parents discipline there children rather than sending DCF to accuse them of child abuse. To many people in other peoples business for spite or self justice. We are becoming a society of bullies and gossipers who ruin other peoples lives for their own satisfaction.

  25. I spoke to a woman who had her mother murdered by a fifteen year old boy. She said she was only sorry there was no death penalty in her state…
    Well, I would be upset too. What really astonished me, though, was the number of people saying he should be locked up for life, or be killed. What will that do? Is throwing young people away like this and pretending they're not there so you can feel better about yourself your ideal American dream? As Mr Bennett said of Mr Collins, "That is his notion of Christian forgiveness." Stupid, stupid, stupid.

  26. It is sad to think that we are on par with a third world country in terms of criminal punishments. I've seen instances where there was a man behind bars for life because he had pot while others who committed homicide were in for 20 years or so who are adults. I don't believe putting someone as young as 11 behind bars without chance for parole for a first time offense is conducive for that child, he or she is still growing. A persons character is not decided at the tender stage of adolescence. In Cherame's case she proved growth and development when she got her bachelor's and yet still is not given a chance. The abuse of the child is excessive and unjust if he or she committed a first time offense and is subjected to the horrors of an adult prison. We are suppose to protect children from this not set up an institute facilitating it, all this achieves is making it so that prisoner has absolutely no chance being conformed into society.