USA: Jacqueline Montanez and Life Imprisonment Without Parole

Imagine being condemned to spend the rest of your life in prison when you were still a child. Imagine being just 15 years old, and knowing you will never be free again. We all change so much as we grow up, but no matter what you did or how you changed, you would never be released.

This is the situation Jacqueline Montanez in Illinois has faced for over 20 years. Jacqueline was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a crime committed when she was just 15 years old.

Despite her young age, Jacqueline’s murder trial took place in an adult court where, on conviction, the only possible sentence was life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. This meant that issues such as her young age, history of abuse, mental health issues, difficult home environment or amenability to rehabilitation could not be considered or taken into account when sentencing her.

Jacqueline’s stepfather was a drug dealer and ‘enforcer’ for the Latin Kings street gang in Chicago. From a very young age Jacqueline was groomed to be a gang ‘soldier’. She was sent out to deliver heroin when she was as young as six. When she was 8, her school alerted social services, because she had multiple bruises and had told her teachers she was being hit by her stepfather, who had also sexually abused her for years. From the age of 9, Jacqueline started using drugs and alcohol and was hospitalised for overdoses on several occasions, and eventually joined a gang rival to her stepfather’s.

Jacqueline repeatedly ran away from home to escape the abuse and was intermittently placed in the custody of social services from the age of 12. Jacqueline was 15 when she and another young woman killed Hector Reyes and James Cruz, members of a rival street gang. At the time of the crime Jacqueline had not attended school since the 8th grade.

'For 15 years I lived being beat up or watching my parents shoot up or delivering drugs for my [step]father, or being raped… I woke up to beatings, cooking his drugs and bagging them. I thought it was normal.'
Jacqueline Montanez

Jacqueline has now grown into a very different person. She has completed almost all available educational programmes. She is a trainer of service fogs for disabled people, a published poet, and a tutor and mentor to other prison inmates. She is also speaks out for other troubled young people, particularly those trapped in a similar lifestyle to the one she was born into.

In 2012 a US Supreme Court judgment recognised the need for special treatment of children in the criminal justice system and found that giving children a sentence of mandatory life imprisonment without parole violated the 8th amendment. Read our blog on the decision. In March the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that because of this decision juveniles serving mandatory life sentences without parole should be able to have new sentencing hearings. However this has been appealed to the US Supreme Court.

For now, Jacqueline’s sentence means she is destined to spend the rest of her life in prison, unless granted clemency.

The USA and the Convention on the Rights of the Child

The Convention on the Rights of the Child also includes the principle that no person aged under 18 at the time of committing a criminal offence should be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of release. This is an accepted international principle, which recognises that children are still developing and have a special potential for rehabilitation and change and should have the chance of reintegrating into society.

The USA signed this treaty in 1995, but, unlike most other countries in the world, has still not ratified it. For the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are calling on the USA to ratify the Convention. Read more about the CRC campaign.

Take Action

Currently the only hope for Jacqueline’s release is if the Governor of Illinois decides to grant her clemency.

We are asking you to write to the Governor, asking him to grant Jacqueline clemency, and ensure no other child receives this sentence.

For more information and further guidance on what to put in your letter, have a look at the attached action sheet, below.

Please send your letters to:

Governor Pat Quinn
c/o Era Laudermilk, Associate General Counsel

Office of the Governor
James R. Thompson Center
100 W. Randolph, Suite 16-100

Chicago, IL 60601, USA

Salutation: Dear Governor

Please send copies of your letters to:

His Excellency the Honourable Matthew Barzun
Embassy of the United States of America
24 Grosvenor Square, London, W1A 6AE
Salutation: Your Excellency

And to Jacqueline’s lawyer:

Alison R Flaum
Legal Director
Children and Family Justice Center

Northwestern University School of Law
375 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611-3069, USA

You can also send Jacqueline messages of solidarity to:

Jacqueline Montanez
Logan Correctional Center

P.O. Box 1000
IL 62656

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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