USA: 2,500 children serving Life Without Parole (LWOP)

The USA is one of the more high-profile countries that still practices capital punishment. What is much less known, however, is their practice of sentencing minors to life without parole (LWOP).

I haven't quite yet worked out how to embed this video in to the blog, but do copy the link and watch it if you have time.  It is very interesting, not least because it presents both sides of the debate surrounding the decision to allow children to be imprisoned for life: 

 http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/january-30-2009/juve…

Here are a few facts about life without parole in the US:

In 2005, the Supreme  Court recognized that juveniles are inherently different from adults.  In the Roper  v. Simmons decision, they declared the juvenile death penalty to be  unconstitutional.  

There are currently at least 2,500 youthful offenders serving lifewithout parole in U.S. prisons.

Nationally, 59% of these individualsreceived their sentences for their first ever criminal conviction. 

16%were between the ages of 13 and 15 when they committed their crimes

26% were sentenced under a felony murder charge where their offensedid not involve carrying a weapon or pulling a trigger, but rather because they were following another that did.

(Taken from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/position-statements/58, and the following transcript: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/january-30-2009/juve…)

It is the last of these startling facts that confuses me the most.  But let's start from the first.  The juvenile death penalty is deemed inconstitutional.  Fair enough, I would obviously agree.  But the solution, therefore, is to commit minors to prison for the rest of their lives?  So the idea is that instead of the death penalty, we lock them up and give up hope?

There are a number of well-intentioned motives for imprisoning someone – carefully developed by judicial and penal systems over time – including the rehabilitation of offenders and deterring potential criminals (the latter is a common counterargument for the death penalty, although it is not proven to be all that effective).

It is senseless, obviously, to expect a young person serving LWOP to care much for any form of rehabilitation.  Why lock up the demographic of criminals for whom rehabilitation would be easiest? Surely successful rehabilitation is much more likely in a minor than an adult? And, without meaning to sound crass, what a waste of money for the taxpayer, who has to pour funds into holding a human being captive until death…

As far as being an effective deterrent, it would be really interesting to know just how many of the 2,500 young people who have been imprisoned since before their 18th birthday had any idea that they might be imprisoned for life without parole.  Judging from some of the backgrounds these children come from (check out that video above), I'm guessing that many would not be aware of the consequences if they followed a (likely older) person into committing a crime.

It should be clear that young people and children that carry out criminal acts are often doing so from a platform of extreme instability due to bad example, abuse, neglect, abandonment.  Young people have not developed the law-abiding faculties we expect adults to use:

'Adolescents differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems,and make decisions.  There is a biological explanation for thesedifferences.  Recent research has demonstrated that the brain continuesto mature and develop throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. Neuroimaging studies have also shown that adolescents use their brainsin fundamentally different ways than adults.  As a result, they aremore likely to respond impulsively, utilizing a more primitive part oftheir brain.  They are also less likely to stop, think things through,and analyze the consequences of their actions.'

Please spread the word about the human rights violation that is LWOP, on behalf of the 2,500 young people that cannot.

Comments and discussion welcome!

 

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