Thursday, March 20, 2008

States Reconsidering Life Sentences for Juveniles

The U.S. is the only nation in the world imposing life sentences on children. A majority of U.S. states do incarcerate juveniles for life without parole, and we currently have nearly 2400 such juvenile offenders serving life sentences throughout the country.

It may come as a surprise to many that Massachusetts is one of those states in the majority. But the good news is there are people both here in Massachusetts and throughout the country working to stop this practice. The Christian Science Monitor last week ran the following article on the movement in many states around the country to reform or abolish these sentencing laws: States Reconsider Life Behind Bars For Youth - Christian Science Monitor, by Amanda Paulson .

Current prospects for abolition are not great, but this article does give some hope. I have previously argued for a ban of such sentences on human rights grounds and have discussed this issue in these previous posts: Deadly Delinquents, Deadbeat Dads, and the Dangers of Demonization and Massachusetts Youthful Offender Law Challenged in Worcester.


Chicago - How should a society treat its youngest criminal offenders? And the families of victims of those offenders?

Half a dozen states are now weighing these questions anew, as they consider whether to ban life sentences for juveniles that don't include a option for parole – and whether those now serving such sentences should have a retroactive shot at parole.

Here in Illinois, proposed legislation would give 103 people – most convicted of unusually brutal crimes – a chance at parole hearings, while outlawing the sentence for future young perpetrators.

The proposal has victims' families up in arms, angry that killers they had been told were in prison for life might be given a shot at release and that they'd need to regularly attend hearings in the future, reliving old traumas, to try to ensure that these criminals remain behind bars.

Advocates of legislation, meanwhile, both in Illinois and elsewhere, note that the US is the only country in the world with anyone – nearly 2,400 across the nation – serving such a severe sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile. They criticize the fact that the sentence is often mandatory, part of a system devoid of leniency for a teenager's lack of judgment, or hope that youth can be reformed.


The current legislation in Illinois is unlikely to go anywhere, with its key sponsor backing away last week and saying more time is needed to dialogue with victims. Reform advocates hope to have new legislation introduced in the near future. Colorado outlawed juvenile life without parole in 2006, and legislation is pending in Michigan, Florida, Nebraska, and California, while a few other states are experiencing grass-roots efforts.

Some activists against the sentence say they hope they can work with victims' families to take their concerns into account even as they do away with the sentence. In Michigan, where a set of bills is before both the Senate and the House, activists have had some success building dialogue with victims, says Deborah LaBelle, a human rights attorney based in Ann Arbor and director of the ACLU's Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative.

"We need to allow both voices to be heard," says Ms. LaBelle. But she feels strongly that the sentence is inappropriate for youth. "As every parent knows and as every social scientist understands, this is a time of ill-thought-out, impulsive lack of judgment, problematic years… To throw them away and say you're irredeemable as a child is a disturbing social concept."

For information and links related to Massachusetts criminal law see the criminal defense page of my law firm website.

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