Bring me your huddled masses (except your children)

Here’s a pub quiz question for you. There are two countries in the world that have failed to ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. One of them is Somalia. Which is the other?

I’ll have to hurry you … No? Take a guess. Iran? China? North Korea? Saudi Arabia? Nope, the USA. Yes, the United States, self-proclaimed land of the free, but not a country that feels able to guarantee the rights of its millions of children.

This “exceptionalism” was something that anti-death penalty campaigners could have told you about. Because, standing outside the children’s convention meant that until 2005 the USA felt justified in carrying out the execution of child offenders who had been found guilty of murder. Then that changed. A celebrated US Supreme Court decision (Roper v Simmons) ruled that it was a “cruel and unusual punishment” to execute a person who was under the age of 18 at the time of the murder. The judgment cited an "evolving standards of decency" test, which included looking at what other countries were doing (it transpired that even a handful of child offender-executing countries – Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo – were disavowing it).

So, the electric chair or lethal injection chamber has gone, but the US nevertheless continues to deal with its child offenders in exceptionally severe ways. And the USA has been locking up its child offenders and almost literally throwing away the key ever since.

There are now over 2,500 child offenders in the US who are serving “life without the possibility of parole” sentences. They are supposed to live out their entire lives behind bars. No other country does this. Not on this scale, not at all.

A new report from Amnesty features just three of these 2,500 cases. One (Jacqueline Montanez) was a member of a teenage street gang that shot dead two rival gang members in Illinois in 1992; a second (David Young) was present when a friend shot dead a man who had refused to pay for drugs in North Carolina in 1997; a third (Christi Cheramie) was present when – she says – her 18-year-old fiancé stabbed to death his great aunt in Louisiana in 1994.

Each of the cases is obviously different, but there are also notable similarities. All three came from acutely dysfunctional families marked by terrible physical abuse and neglect. Each of them went through a justice system which intimidated and pressured them.

Christi Cheramie, aged 12. Copyright: Private (1990)Christi Cheramie (pictured left, aged 12), for example, was terrified she was going to get the death penalty so pleaded guilty to second-degree murder without understanding the consequence. And in the nearly two decades since their crimes, each of these individuals have changed as people immeasurably.

Jacqueline Montanez says: “I did what they say I did, I am not who they say I am”. This, surely, is the key point. Life without parole is wrong for child offenders because it denies the possibility of change and rehabilitation. Among offenders children are a special case – they are undeveloped, lack the maturity and sense of responsibility of adults and should therefore be given every chance to rehabilitate themselves and re-enter society, not denied it altogether.

As it happens I’m not much of a participant in pub quizzes (I don’t like pubs never mind quizzes!) but the “pub quiz” nature of this issue is a good way of reminding ourselves that appearances can be deceptive. The USA, land of Walt Disney, of Toy Story and a thousand and one devices to sentimentalise childhood (and infantilise adulthood!?), is also one that condemns a minority of them to remain fixed by their worst-ever action. Isn’t this counter to the “American way” of self-improvement and change? It’s time to change this, I reckon.

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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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