The United States treats children, particularly youth of color, who come into conflict with the law in intensely cruel and inhuman ways, disregarding their human rights and differences from adults. This is evidenced most starkly by the fact that the United States is the only country that sentences children to die in prison by imposing life-without-parole sentences on individuals under age 18. Imposition of the sentence varies significantly based on geography, quality of legal representation, the child’s economic status, and race.
Adolescent development research has proven that children’s brains and characters are still forming. They do not have adult levels of judgment or ability to assess risks. They are also uniquely capable of rehabilitation, so should be held accountable in age-appropriate ways with a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
In the mid 1990s, criminologists predicted a violent juvenile crime wave, saying that “godless fatherless monsters” would wreak havoc on our communities. They plastered photos of black teenagers in the media and dubbed them “superpredators.” State legislatures reacted by passing tough on crime policies that made it possible to try children as adults at younger and younger ages. At the same time, an increase in mandatory minimums and truth in sentencing took hold. The confluence of these laws led to these extreme sentences for children, which have no equal elsewhere in the world.
Years later, the superpredator theory was disproven. There never was a violent juvenile crime wave, but the policies remained in place, including life-without-parole for children. African American youth are serving life without parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth. Historically, just five states are responsible for imposing two-thirds of overall juvenile life without parole sentences, despite youth in those states being no more deserving of punishment than in any other.
Since the CFSY was launched, we have fostered broad bipartisan support for reform and helped instigate incredible momentum. The number of states that ban life without parole for children quadrupled in just five years, and the U.S. Supreme Court has stepped in three times to limit the sentence. Hundreds told as children they were worth nothing more than dying in prison have been freed and thousands have received new sentences short of life without parole, given them hope of a second chance.