By: Erin Maher
The United States often represents itself as a defender of human rights, a country striving to live up to its ideals, striving to be a shining light for the rest of the world to look too. While in many respects this notion may be arguably true, hiding in the shadows is the reality that in 2018 the United States stands alone as the only country in the world to continue to sentence its juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.Juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) has been condemned by the international community for many years as a violation of human rights. In 2006, the United Nations adopted a resolution to abolish JLWOP and in a vote of 185 to 1 the United States stood out as the sole dissenter.Today, twelve years after the UN resolution was passed, approximately 2,100 individuals are serving life without parole in the United States despite committing their crimes as juveniles.
The United States saw a rise in JLWOP in the early 1990’s which corresponded to a dramatic spike in crime throughout the country which ultimately lead to a fear of emerging ‘super-predators.’These so-called ‘super-predators’ were thought to pose a serious and long-term threat to our communities and were said to be “perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons.”Despite the fear campaign this elite class of dangerous juveniles, the super-predators, never materialized. By the time the proposition was made the juvenile homicide rate had begun to steadily decline following its peak in 1993.
A decade would pass following the proliferation of the ‘super-predator’ myth before the United States would see a significant shift in juvenile sentencing. In 2005, the United States Supreme Court found the death penalty to be a disproportionate punishment for juveniles who due to immaturity have a diminished culpability.The Court found the death penalty to not only be a violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, but found it to be in direct opposition to the weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty.Despite the recognition of international trends in juvenile sentencing, the Court has been less willing to join the vast majority of nations in abolishing juvenile life without parole. This does not mean however that state’s use of JLWOP is without limits.
In 2010, the Supreme Court limited the sentence of life without parole, now the most serious juvenile punishment available, to only those juveniles convicted of homicide.In reaching this decision the Court considered psychological and brain development research considered in an earlier juvenile death penalty case to conclude that juveniles are more amendable to change and present a greater possibility for their “character deficiencies [to] be reformed.”The Supreme Court has also recognized the severity of a sentence of life without parole for a minor in relation to the length of time and proportion of one’s life when compared to an adult offender.Following this analysis, two years later the Court would further limit state’s use of JLWOP by declaring mandatory life without parole statues to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment and thus unconstitutional.The Supreme Court found mandatory life sentence statutes to be flawed because such laws precluded the judge and jury from considering each individual juvenile’s personal characteristics and possible mitigating factors. The Court’s ruling on mandatory sentencing laws affected twenty-eight states and the federal government, however, the question of retroactivity remained.The Court definitively settled the debate regarding retroactivity in 2016 ruling that because the Court had established a new substantive law regarding constitutional guarantees the prohibition on mandatory life sentences would apply to all sentences handed down prior to the decision in 2012. The Court reasoned that because children are constitutionally different from adults in regards to their level of culpability the severest of punishments must be reserved only “for the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”States were permitted to hold parole hearings for previously sentenced juveniles rather than resentencing each individual as a means of remedying the unconstitutional effect of the statutory mandates.
Today thirty states maintain laws permitting the use of discretionary juvenile life without parole sentences.While the aforementioned Supreme Court decisions have limited the use of JLWOP the rulings do not guarantee a juvenile’s release from prison before the end of his or her natural life, but rather certify the constitutional right to a “meaningful opportunity” for release.Despite the Supreme Court’s recognition of psychological development research, a juvenile’s susceptibility to peer pressure and lack of adult culpability thousands of individuals continue to serve out life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. Juvenile life without parole sentences when mandatory have been deemed cruel and unusual punishmentand a violation of international human rights law and yet continue to be made discretionarily available in 2018. Given the Supreme Court precedent and juvenile research at our disposal it may be time for a deeper look at the need for juvenile life sentences in light of their capacity for rehabilitation and the relative availability of reasonable alternatives.
Josh Rovner, Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview, The Sentencing Project(Updated Oct. 2017), https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/juvenile-life-without-parole/.
See generallyJohn Dilulio, The Coming of the Super-Predators, The Weekly Standard(1995), https://www.weeklystandard.com/john-j-dilulio-jr/the-coming-of-the-super-predators.
Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey, The Sentencing Project(March 2012), https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/the-lives-of-juvenile-lifers-findings-from-a-national-survey/.