ABA calls for end to life-without-parole sentences for kids

The American Bar Association (ABA), the country’s foremost legal membership organization representing nearly 400,000 prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and other lawyers, today approved a resolution calling for an end to the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without parole and urging “meaningful periodic opportunities for release.”

In approving this resolution, the ABA demonstrates its commitment to ensuring that children are held accountable in a way that provides them the opportunity to be rehabilitated and prove themselves deserving of a second chance.  Passage also signals the ABA’s commitment to reforming our country’s juvenile sentencing laws to reflect child developmental science demonstrating that adolescents are still growing and changing, and recent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court affirming that children are “constitutionally different” from adults, and therefore less deserving of our harshest punishments.

“With the adoption of Resolution 107C, the American Bar Association has sent a clear message to the legal community and policymakers across the country that children should never be sentenced to die in prison,” said ABA President, William C. Hubbard. “As the world’s foremost leader and defender of human rights, the United States should ban life without parole sentences for children – a severe violation of human rights.  The ABA applauds those states that have already taken steps to reform their laws and urges other states to pass similar reforms as soon as practicable.”

The ABA approved the resolution during its Midyear Meeting in Houston, made up of 560 delegates from state, local and other bar associations and legal groups from across the country.  In doing so, the ABA joins a growing movement among policy makers, opinion leaders and national organizations seeking an end to life-without-parole sentences for children, including the American Correctional Association, the National Probation and Parole Association, the National PTA, and that National Association of Counties.  Significantly, the ABA resolution received a favorable vote from the U.S. Department of Justice when it was heard by the Criminal Justice Section last fall, making its position in opposition to life-without-parole for children public for the first time. The resolution was sponsored by Kelly Mitchell, executive director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School.

“Our sentencing strategies should focus on rehabilitating children and preparing them to re-enter society, rather than condemning them to die in prison,” said Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and a former official in the U.S. Department of Justice. “We can never know what a child will be like when he or she is an adult, so we need to check in on them to see if they have changed as they have grown and matured.”

The United States is the only country in the world known to sentence its children to die in prison. In addition, the U.S. and South Sudan are the only countries that have yet to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the imposition of life-without-parole sentences upon children.  Somalia ratified the treaty last month. Pope Francis also has called for an end to life sentences.

“We are thrilled to have the nation’s most respected legal organization add its voice in opposition to this unjust practice,” said Jody Kent Lavy, CFSY director & national coordinator. “Their partnership and the overwhelming support for establishing fair alternatives to life-without-parole sentences for children demonstrate that it is time now for the United States to join the rest of the world and stop sentencing our children to die in prison.”

Read the resolution