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August 6, 2017

Guest post: "It’s Time to End Life without Parole for Children in the United States"

Guest-postI recently received a kind request to publish here a commentary authored by Rob Smith and Heather Renwick.  Rob is the Executive Director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School, and Heather is Legal Director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth in Washington DC.  Here is what they have to say:

Sweeping reform over the past five years has brought the United States to a critical tipping point in the movement to end the arbitrary and cruel practice of sentencing kids to life in prison without parole. The Associated Press just reported that the number of youth serving life without parole around the country has dramatically fallen in the past five years due to legislative reforms and judicial opinions that recognize sentencing kids to life in prison is unnecessarily harsh and unconstitutional in most, if not all, cases.

In 2012, only five states banned life without parole sentences for juveniles. Today, just five years later, the number of states that ban life sentences for children has nearly quadrupled, bringing the total to nineteen states and District of Columbia. Another four states do not sentence children to life in prison, despite the fact that penalty is technically available.

The states that ban or no longer use life without parole for children reflect geographical, political, and ideological diversity. For example, West Virginia enacted the most progressive law in the country in 2014, and Nevada’s Republican-majority legislature unanimously passed a law that provides parole eligibility for all children sentenced in adult court.

Even Pennsylvania, the historical epicenter of juvenile life without parole in the United States, is moving unequivocally away from the practice. In the past year, over 100 individuals sentenced as children to life without parole in Pennsylvania have been resentenced, more than 60 of whom have returned home so far.

When the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the juvenile death penalty in 2005 in a case called Roper v. Simmons, it looked to the number of states that legislatively or functionally abandoned the juvenile death penalty as evidence of national consensus. The rapid movement away from life without parole sentences for youth has far surpassed the pace of reform that preceded Roper

Yet a handful of states remain outliers in their treatment of young people convicted of serious crimes.  Virginia has flouted U.S. Supreme Court opinions limiting the imposition of life sentences on children, and in Michigan, children continue to be sentenced to life without parole at a rate that far outstrips the rest of the country. So whether a child is sentenced to life without parole is entirely dependent on the state in which he or she is sentenced.

Last year in a case called Montgomery v. Louisiana — a clarification of its 2012 opinion Miller v. Alabama — the U.S. Supreme Court said that a sentence of life without parole should not be imposed on a child in most, if not all, cases. The Supreme Court rooted these decisions in the understanding that even children who commit serious crimes are capable of positive growth and change.

Yet as the AP just reported, inconsistent implementation of these U.S. Supreme Court decisions means that “[t]he odds of release or continued imprisonment vary from state to state, even county to county, in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.” And our nation’s kids deserve more than arbitrary justice.  It’s time for the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize what a rapidly growing number of states already have: that no child should be sentenced to life in prison without parole. 

August 6, 2017 at 09:28 PM | Permalink


Harvard, Washington DC? Dismissed. I am not even reading this pro-criminal propaganda trash. Get someone real, instead of a Blame America First, Hate America most Harvard asshole.

Hey, Harvard Asshole, let's have the home address, or STFU. All released murderers will be placed in the houses surrounding yours.

This Harvard asshole calls 17 year old super-predators and organized crime assassins, children.

Posted by: David Behar | Aug 6, 2017 11:20:34 PM

Great guest post. Ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child !

Posted by: peter | Aug 7, 2017 6:20:11 AM

Youth, kids, children. The authors are lawyers, please tell me what age you are now and forever advocating as ineligible for LWOP. Because they refuse to use an age, but rather use soft terms like youth kids in children tells me that it is not age 18. I expect more from legal educators.

Also they state that getting LWOP is " entirely dependent on the state in which he or she is sentenced." A significant and just as important variable is the comission of the qualifying crime. These people make it sound like these vile crimes are involuntary. That is not how our criminal justice system views this behavior. Regardless it is not unfair for different states to approach questions differently. That is the very nature of our republic.

Posted by: David | Aug 7, 2017 9:21:51 AM

Doug--where is the AP story? The hyperlink goes to an email. Thanks!

Posted by: Leah | Aug 7, 2017 4:25:35 PM

Sorry about that, Leah, I now think I fixed all the links.

Posted by: Doug B. | Aug 7, 2017 5:19:42 PM

I agree that we should execute people instead of giving them life without parole. But due to the anti-death penalty movement, life without parole seems a fair compromise.

Posted by: Who's your DABBY | Aug 8, 2017 12:36:09 AM

As we (and the authors)well know:

"children who commit serious crimes are capable of negative growth and even more violent change."

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Aug 8, 2017 8:52:35 AM

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