President Obama should call for ban on life without parole for kids

We applaud President Obama for his demand this week for justice reform, acknowledgement that “kids are different,” and his visit to a prison today. The fact that he and Pope Francis – two of our most powerful world leaders – have made it a priority to visit those incarcerated in the United States and call for meaningful reform to the justice system reflects just how urgent it is.

We call on the President to follow the Pope’s lead in publicly condemning the practice of imposing criminal penalties on children, especially life without parole, the most extreme punishment available to children. The United States is the only country in the world known to sentence its children to die in prison. This step would be consistent with the President’s declaration that “justice and redemption go hand in hand” and would bring our nation closer to international standards for holding our children accountable.

This step also would align with a growing and diverse movement for reform among policy and opinion leaders, from President Carter to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and conservative commentator George Will. Fourteen states have abandoned the practice, and several others either don’t use the sentence or have severely limited its use.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in three decisions during the last decade, has ruled that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and should not be subject to our nation’s harshest punishments.

These significant advances in law have been informed by growing bodies of adolescent development research that have proven what every parent knows: children are not simply little adults. They are less capable than adults to control their impulses, think through the long-term impacts of their behaviors, and avoid pressure from peers and adults. Significantly, they also possess a unique capacity for change and rehabilitation.

A call by President Obama for an outright ban on life-without-parole sentences for children would encourage state leaders and members of Congress to replace these extreme sentences with laws to ensure that children are held accountable in age-appropriate, trauma-informed ways that focus on their ability to learn from their mistakes and better themselves, with the hope of one day returning to their communities.

Eliminating these inhumane death-in-prison sentences for children would move us closer to a country living up to the vision that President Obama articulated in his speech Tuesday to the NAACP. In his call for reform to our country’s deeply broken justice system he said, “I am going to shine a spotlight on this issue because while the people in our prisons have made some mistakes — and sometimes big mistakes — they are also Americans, and we have to make sure that as they do their time and pay back their debt to society that we are increasing the possibility that they can turn their lives around.”

We applaud this message and urge the President to help secure his legacy as an agent of transformative change in our criminal justice system by taking the common-sense and morally necessary step of calling for our country to join the rest of the world by ending the practice of sentencing our children to die in prison.

Jody Kent Lavy
Director & National Coordinator
Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
July 16, 2015