Putting a stop to Children Sentenced to Life without Parole

We need your help to end the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for children younger than 18 years old.

Children can and do commit terrible crimes, however, when they do, they should be held accountable in a manner that reflects both their culpability and their special capacity for rehabilitation. Children under 18, who by law are not responsible enough to vote, live on their own, sign contracts, sit on a jury or get married without parental consent are too young to be treated as adults and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in a prison cell without any chance of review or of parole.

Please send a message to your Governor:

United States: Thousands of Children Sentenced to Life without Parole

(New York, October 12, 2005)—There are at least 2,225 child
offenders serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences in U.S prisons
for crimes committed before they were age 18, Human Rights Watch
and Amnesty International said in a new joint report published today.

While many of the child offenders are now adults, 16 percent were
between 13 and 15 years old at the time they committed their crimes.
An estimated 59 percent were sentenced to life without parole for their
first-ever criminal conviction. Forty-two states currently have laws
allowing children to receive life without parole sentences.

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 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 an analysis of
previously uncollected federal and state corrections data. The data
allowed the organizations to track state and national trends in LWOP
sentencing through mid-2004 and to analyze the race, history and
crimes of young offenders.

"Kids who commit serious crimes shouldn't go scot-free," said Alison
Parker, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, who authored the
report for both organizations. "But if they are too young to vote or buy
cigarettes, they are too young to spend the rest of their lives behind

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are releasing The
Rest of Their Lives at a critical time: while fewer youth are committing
serious crimes such as murder, states are increasingly sentencing them
to life without parole. In 1990, for example, 2,234 children were
convicted of murder and 2.9 percent sentenced to life without parole.
By 2000, the conviction rate had dropped by nearly 55 percent (1,006),
yet the percentage of children receiving LWOP sentences rose by 216
percent (to nine percent).

"Untie the hands of state and federal judges and prosecutors," said Dr.
William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA
(AIUSA). "Give them options other than turning the courts into
assembly lines that mass produce mandatory life without parole
sentences for children, that ignore their enormous potential for change
and rob them of all hopes for redemption."

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 percent of youth
offenders serving life without parole were convicted of murder. But
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that an
estimated 26 percent 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, 15-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 organizations also said that widespread and
unfounded fears of adolescent "super-predators"—violent teenagers
with long criminal histories who prey on society—prompted states to
increasingly try children as adults. Ten states set no minimum age for
sentencing children to life without parole, and there are at least six
children currently serving the sentence who were age 13 when they
committed their crimes. Once convicted, these children are sent to
adult prisons and must live among adult gangs, sexual predators and in
harsh conditions. For more state-by-state statistics please see the State-
by-State Summary.

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 it deters youth crime or is otherwise helpful
in reducing juvenile crime rates. For example, Georgia rarely
sentences children to life without parole but it has youth crime rates
lower than Missouri, which imposes the sentence on child offenders
far more frequently.

"Public safety can be protected without subjecting youth to the
harshest prison sentence possible," said Parker.

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 United States is one of only a few countries in the world
permit children to be sentenced to LWOP. The Convention on the
Rights of the Child, ratified by every country in the world except the
United States 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, but, outside
of the United States, there are only about 12 young offenders currently
serving life sentences with no possibility of parole.

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.

"Children who commit serious crimes still have the ability to change
their lives for the better," said David Berger, attorney with the law
firm of O'Melveny & Myers and Amnesty International's researcher
for this report. "It is now time for state and federal officials to take
positive steps by enacting policies that seek to redeem children,
instead of throwing them in prison for the rest of their lives."

The organizations called on the United States to end the practice of
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.

Testimonies from The Rest of Their Lives:
Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States

On comprehending the life without parole sentence:   

A 29-year-old woman who was sentenced to life without parole at the
age of 16 said:
"I didn't understand ‘life without' . . . [that] to have ‘life without,' you
were locked down forever. You know it really dawned on me when
[after several years in prison, a journalist] came and . . . he asked me,
‘Do you realize that you're gonna be in prison for the rest of your
life?' And I said, ‘Do you really think that?' You know. . . and I was
like, ‘For the rest of my life? Do you think that God will leave me in
prison for the rest of my life?'"
—Interview with Cheryl J., MacPherson Unit, McPherson, Arkansas,
June 24, 2004 (pseudonym)

On committing crimes as children and being tried as adults:
Gregory C., who committed his crime of first degree murder when he
was 15, described his state of mind at the time:
"A kid just does something—whether it's an accident or intentional. I
mean personally, me, I was fifteen years old . . . I didn't know what I
was doing. I was still a kid. . . . Kids do a lot of stupid things. . . . The
person I was when I was fifteen, I really didn't have any morals, I
didn't even know who I was at that time. I hate to admit it, but I was
real ignorant."
—Interview with Gregory C., Colorado State Penitentiary, CaƱon City,
Colorado, July 2, 2004 (pseudonym)

Thomas M. described what happened when he heard the jury's verdict:
"I was very emotional and I broke out crying in court. I don't know if I
fully understood but I kinda understood when they just said, ‘guilty,
guilty, guilty' and ‘life' y' know? As time went on, I'm really starting
to realize how serious it is. I was young, I wasn't really too educated.
When I got locked up, I was in the eighth grade. All my education has
come through the years of being incarcerated."
—Interview with Thomas M., Colorado State Penitentiary, Canon
City, Colorado, July 27, 2004 (pseudonym)

On contemplating suicide in adult prison: 

Richard I., who was 14 at the time of his crime and entered prison at
age 16, spoke about his suicidal thoughts and his repeated practice of
cutting his arms with razor blades:
"When I went to prison, I was around all the—up all night—all the
violence. I was like, ‘man I gotta get out of this—how am I gonna get
out of this prison?' I can't do no life sentence here at that age. And so
I thought of that [killing himself]. Gotta end it, gotta end it . . . I've got
so many cuts on me. . . . Razor blades. They give us disposable razors,
you pop it out."
—Interview with Richard I., East Arkansas Regional Unit, Brickeys,
Arkansas, June 21, 2004 (pseudonym)

On rape and other physical violence in adult prison:

Brian B. wrote about what happened soon after he entered prison in
Pennsylvania at the age of 17 with a life without parole sentence:
"Sheriffs took me to the Western Penitentiary. They lied to the warden
telling him I were eighteen, which I had not yet become. I were housed
in an open poorly supervised unit, and that evening a group of large
adult men rushed into my cell, holding me down, they began pulling
my clothes off while another took a syringe over to a spoon that
another inmate were holding a lighter under. He drew up whatever
was in the spoon. I were then injected with whatever it were. And then
raped. Once found by the officers I were taken to a holding area,
cleaned up, and placed on a van to another prison at around 3:00
—Letter from Brian B., Albion, Pennsylvania, August 28, 2004

Warren P. wrote that when he first came to prison, at the age of 15:
"I was the target of covert sexual predators. Adults would pretend to
be your best friend to get close to you, then they would try you. . . .
Officers would be hard on me more so than the adults for they believe
that the younger inmates need rougher treatment."
—Letter to Human Rights Watch from Warren P., Marion Correction
Institute, Lowell, Florida, March 2, 2004 (pseudonym)

On rehabilitation:

Charles L. came to prison at age 19. He spoke with obvious pride
about what he was learning on "hoe squad" in the Arkansas
Department of Corrections:
"I ain't ever had no job. But now I'm on hoe squad. Know how to
plant everything. Cantaloupe, squash, onions, green beans, cabbage,
broccoli, tomatoes, peas, sweet potatoes . . . everything they grow,
eggplant . . . they grow everything. There's a lot I know since I been
—Interview with Charles L, Varner Unit, Arkansas, June 22, 2004

Troy L., who was 15 when he murdered his abusive father, was
interviewed for this report at age 24 in June 2004. He wrote in a
subsequent letter:
"I would be ever grateful, in fact, for the chance to spend my life now
for some good reason. I would go to the most dangerous parts of
Afghanistan or Israel, or jump on the first manned mission to Mars. . .
.[I]f the state were to offer me some opportunity to end my life doing
some good, rather than a slow-wasting plague to the world, it would
be a great mercy to me." —Letter to Human Rights Watch from
Troy L., Grady Arkansas, July 2004 (pseudonym)

A legislator's, prosecutor's, and judge's views on the sentence:

Florida State Attorney Harry Shorstein, who prosecuted 14-year-old
Joshua Phillips for killing his eight-year-old female neighbor in 1998
I oppose mandatory sentences and the Legislature's tying the hands of
judges and prosecutors. No matter how tough you are on crime, you
can't say a fourteen-year-old is the same as an eighteen-year-old.
—Paul Pinkham, "Court upholds life in prison for teenager," Florida
Times-Union, February 7, 2002, p. B-1

The judge who sentenced 15-year-old Henry L. to life without parole
for first degree murder said at sentencing:
"[T]he sentence that I must impose is mandated by law. I don't have
any choice in the matter. I'm not at all comfortable with this case, not
because the Defendant didn't receive a fair trial. I think that he did. . .
. [But] it's obvious to me that we can't, as a society, say that fifteen-
year-old children should be held to the same standards as adults. Our
law provides this. I think the law is wrong."
—Honorable David Scott DeWitt (deceased), excerpt from sentencing
transcript in People v. Lashuay, 75th Circuit Court, Midland County,
Michigan, June 25, 1984 (on file with Human Rights Watch)
To view this document on the Human Rights Watch web site, please

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