On Monday the US Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in the cases of Miller v Alabama and Jacskon v Hobbs, ruling that mandatory sentences of life without parole imposed on children violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
This is a great step forward for children’s rights in the US, taking into account the unique status of children within the criminal justice system; recognising that they are still developing and not fully responsible for their actions, as well as their greater potential for change and rehabilitation.
There has been international agreement for some time that imposing the sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on someone who was aged under 18 at the time of the offence is a violation of the rights of children. This is reflected in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides in Article 37 that:
States Parties shall ensure that:
No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.
The USA and Somalia are the only two countries that have not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We have previously blogged on this issue and Amnesty’s report ‘This is where I’m going to be when I die’ here, and we have also asked you to take action for a number of people affected by the mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole – including: Jordan Brown, Christi Cheramie and Jacqueline Montanez.
Jordan Brown was a 13 year old, facing trial as an adult for the murder of his father’s girlfriend, a crime committed when he was only 11 years old. Had Jordan been tried and convicted in an adult court, the sentence of life without the possibility of parole would have been the only possible sentence. Although the trial judge initially refused to allow the transfer of Jordan’s case to a juvenile court unless he pleaded guilty, Jordan’s case was eventually sent for a new transfer hearing and his trial transferred to the juvenile court.
Christi Cheramie was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole when she was just 16, after being convicted of second-degree murder. Her case had been transferred to an adult court just 3 days after her arrest, and before a hearing (at which factors such as her history of mental health issues and amenability to rehabilitation would have been considered). Now 33 years old, Christi was described as a ‘model inmate’ and ‘worthy of a second chance in society’, but was unsuccessful in her application for clemency earlier this year.
Most recently, we asked you to take action for Jacqueline Montanez who was convicted in 1993 of two murders that had been committed in the previous year, when she was just 15 years old. Jacqueline was automatically tried in an adult court and received a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Denying her a trial in a juvenile court meant that Jacqueline’s youth, history of abuse, mental health issues, and openness to rehabilitation were not considered.
If a child is to be sentenced for a criminal offence, it is essential that the court is able to use its discretion and take into account relevant factors, including: the child’s age, health and history, and, most especially, their potential for rehabilitation. Trying children in an adult court, with only the sentence of life without the possibility of parole available, took away this discretion and violated the rights of the children involved. Children sentenced to life without the possibility of parole were condemned to spend the rest of their lives in prison, without any chance of reintegration or rehabilitation.
We now hope that this Supreme Court ruling will prevent any other children having their rights violated by the mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Furthermore, it is now time to look again at the cases of more than 2,500 people who are currently serving sentences of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, for crimes committed when they were children.
The full Supreme Court Decision can be read here
Amnesty International’s Report on Children facing Life without Parole – ‘This is where I’m going to be when I die’
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