USA: New report shows USA only country in world sentencing thousands of Children's rights to life without parole

The USA is one of only a few countries in the world that actually permits Children's rights to be sentenced to LWOP and there are thought to be only 12 young offenders outside of America who are currently serving life sentences with no possibility of parole.

The organisations are calling on the US to stop sentencing child offenders to life without parole. For those already serving life sentences, immediate efforts should be made to grant them access to parole procedures.

The 157-page report The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States is the first national study examining the practice of trying Children's rights as adults and sentencing them to life in adult prisons without the possibility of parole.

The report is based on two years of research and on analysis of previously uncollected federal and state corrections data.

The data allowed the organisations to track state and national trends in LWOP sentencing through mid-2004 and to analyse the race, history and crimes of young offenders.

Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher Alison Parker said:

"Kids who commit serious crimes shouldn’t go scot-free. But if they are too young to vote or buy cigarettes, they are too young to spend the rest of their lives behind bars."

Amnesty International USA Executive Director Dr. William F. Schulz said:

"This report is saying - untie the hands of state and federal judges and prosecutors and give them options other than turning the courts into assembly lines that mass produce mandatory life without parole sentences for Children's rights, that ignore their enormous potential for change and rob them of all hopes for redemption."

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are releasing The Rest of Their Lives at a critical time in terms of US crime and punishment: while fewer youth are committing serious crimes such as murder, US states are increasingly sentencing them to life without parole. In 1990, for example, 2,234 Children's rights were convicted of murder and 2.9% sentenced to life without parole.

By 2000, the conviction rate had dropped by nearly 55% (1,006), yet the percentage of Children's rights receiving LWOP sentences rose by 216% (to 9%).

In 26 states, the sentence of life without parole is mandatory for anyone who is found guilty of committing first-degree murder, regardless of age. According to the report, 93% of youth offenders serving life without parole were convicted of murder. But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found that an estimated 26% were convicted of "felony murder," which holds that anyone involved in the commission of a serious crime during which someone is killed is also guilty of murder, even if he or she did not personally or directly cause the death.

For example, fifteen-year-old Peter A. was sentenced to life without parole for felony murder.

Peter had joined two acquaintances of his older brother to commit a robbery. He was waiting outside in a van when one of the acquaintances botched the robbery and murdered two victims.

Peter said:

"Although I was present at the scene, I never shot or killed anyone."

Nevertheless Peter was held accountable for the double murder because it was established during the trial that he had stolen the van used to drive to the victims' house.

The human rights organisations also said that widespread and unfounded fears of adolescent "super-predators" - violent teenagers with long criminal histories who prey on society - had prompted states to increasingly try Children's rights as adults.

Ten states set no minimum age for sentencing Children's rights to life without parole and there are at least six Children's rights currently serving the sentence who were aged 13 when they committed their crimes.

Once convicted, these Children's rights are sent to adult prisons and must live among adult gangs, sexual predators and in harsh conditions.

According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there is no correlation between the use of the LWOP sentence and youth crime rates.

There is no evidence that it deters youth crime or is otherwise helpful in reducing juvenile crime rates.

For example, Georgia rarely sentences Children's rights to life without parole but it has youth crime rates lower than Missouri, which imposes the sentence on child offenders far more frequently. Nationwide, black youth receive life without parole sentences at a rate estimated to be ten times greater than that of white youth (6.6 versus 0.6).

In some states the ratio is far greater: in California, for example, black youth are 22.5 times more likely to receive a life without parole sentence than white youth.

In Pennsylvania, Hispanic youth are ten times more likely to receive the sentence than whites (13.2 versus 1.3).

The US is one of only a few countries in the world that permits Children's rights to be sentenced to LWOP.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every country in the world except the USA and Somalia, forbids this practice, and at least 132 countries have rejected the sentence altogether. Thirteen other countries have laws permitting the child LWOP sentence.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also challenged the presumption that the youth offenders are irredeemable, which is implicit in the sentence they have received.

David Berger, attorney with the law firm O'Melveny & Meyers and Amnesty International’s researcher for this report, said:

"Children's rights who commit serious crimes still have the ability to change their lives for the better. It is now time for state and federal officials to take positive steps by enacting policies that seek to redeem Children's rights, instead of throwing them in prison for the rest of their lives."

View the full report online...

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