A War on Children: A Global Look at the Criminal Sentencing of Juveniles

By: Octavious Buiey

Criminal punishment in the United States can serve four purposes: rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence, or incapacitation. Whether a punishment is effective and justifiable should be judged based on whether or not the punishment fits within one of these aforementioned purposes. Understanding this is important to understanding the flaws that are present in America’s criminal justice system with regards to how America punishes juveniles. Specifically, America is one of the world’s leaders in charging juveniles as adults and is the world leader in sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the chance of parole.

Juvenile sentencing has long been at the forefront of concerns raised by international human rights activists. In November 1959, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which recognized that “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” The United States was one of seventy-eight members of the UN to signon to the unanimously passed declaration. Since that time, the world’s governments, including the United States, have further elaborated on the rights of children accused of crimes. The problem is that, while the world has headed in the right direction in elaborating on the rights of children, the United States has headed in the opposite.

According to Human Rights Watch, out of 154 countries surveyed, only three currently have people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children, and none of those three have more than a handful of cases. Furthermore, since 1990, the United States is one of eight countries to sentence a juvenile to the death penalty. To further illustrate the discrepancy between the United States and the world, none of the members of the European Union allow for life without parole sentences for children. In Africa, 31 countries prohibit life without parole for children in their penal laws. Six other African countries have decided that the sentence cannot be imposed on child offenders under sixteen. In three additional African countries, the sentence is technically possible, but it is not used in practice. The practice is technically allowed under the penal laws of Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Brunei, Dominica, Kenya, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Sri Lanka, but it seems that the sentence is rarely if ever used. In total, outside of the United States, researchers have only been able to identify 12 youth offenders who are currently serving a life imprisonment sentence without the chance of parole.

According to the Sentencing Project, there are currently almost 2,100 individuals in the United States sentenced mandatorily as juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. The practice is only allowed in 29 states, but it has been implemented in all 29 of those states. The main concern with the sentencing allowances of America’s children is that it does not take into account the reality that the brain development of a child versus that of an adult clearly warrants a distinction in criminal sentences. The distinction has been made around the world, and as America has neglected its responsibility to address this problem, criticism has ramped up with some calling America’s treatment of its youth a human rights violation.

Though progress in this area has been slow for America, in recent years, courts have shown a willingness to protect the rights of children. In Roper v. Simmons, the United States Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death, finding that the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for the young; immaturity diminishes their culpability, as does their susceptibility to outside pressures and influences. In Graham v. Floridathe Court banned the use of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of homicide. In Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, for juveniles, mandatory life without parole sentences violate the Eighth Amendment. The Court emphasized the importance of weighing the characteristics of juveniles when trying to issue a fair sentence. The current state of American jurisprudence is that juveniles can no longer be sentenced to life without the chance of parole. However, this does not change the reality that there are still incarcerated individuals facing life without the chance of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

To be clear, the United States has a duty to protect the public and it is not my argument that children should not face consequences for their crimes. However, the consequences that they face should in fact serve justice, and mandatory life without parole sentences are unjust in that they simply do not fit in the aforementioned purposes of punishment: rehabilitation, deterrence, retribution, or incapacitation. There are ways to justly punish juveniles while keeping the public safe. This is evident in how this problem has been addressed globally. This is merely a case of America not leading the world on this issue. Rather we are slowly beginning to follow what has long been accepted.

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