Last week a critical House Judiciary sub-committee held hearings in support of ending the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The proposed legislation, The Juvenile Justice Accountabilty and Improvement Act of 2009, would deny funding to states that refuse of offer a parole option to juvenile offenders and authorizes state grants to improve legal representation for youths charged with life sentences.
According to ACLU Legislative Counsel Jennifer Bellamy, the United States is “the only nation in the world that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole.” If the proposed legislation passes it would bring the United States in line with the rest of the world in maintaining a rehabiltative goal for juvenile offenders. According to international watchdogs Human Rights Watch there are nearly 2500 offenders currently serving life without parole for offenses committed when they were juveniles. Of those sentenced, about 59% were first-time offenders yet still received the maximum sentence of life without parole. The racial disparities are staggaring, with black youth ten times more likely to receive a life without parole sentence than white youth.
As the stories from Florida and Pennsylvania illustrate, it is long past time for this kind of juvenile justice reform. From a legal perspective there are just too many variables when dealing with juvenile offenders to guarantee an equal application of the sentences– a fact born out in the excellent work by the Equal Justice Initiative. From a moral perspective our stand-alone status on this issue says more than I ever could.
One of the most positive steps taken in this legislation is the requirement that states integrate an early-release program for juveniles already serving life sentences. So, not only does this bill, if passed, prevent future life without parole sentences, it takes specific steps to remedy the wrong of those prior sentences. It is an acknowledgement that noone’s fate should be sealed by a court at age fourteen.
photo courtesy of publik15 via Flickr