North Dakota bans life-without-parole prison sentences for children

Bismarck, North Dakota, April 20, 2017 – North Dakota Governor Burgum, (R), has signed into law HB 1195, making North Dakota the 19th state to ban these death-in-prison sentences for children. The sentences also are not allowed in the District of Columbia.


HB 1195 ensures that no child in North Dakota will be sentenced to die in prison without hope of a second chance. The bill provides individuals who were convicted of serious crimes as children the opportunity to petition the court for judicial sentencing review to demonstrate they are deserving of a second chance after they have served 20 years.  Staff from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) worked closely with State Representative Klemin (R), the bill’s sponsor, and other legislators to ensure HB1195 passed the North Dakota state legislature unanimously with broad bi-partisan support.


“HB 1195 is about hope, redemption, and holding our children accountable for serious crimes they commit in more fair and age-appropriate ways, while protecting public safety,” said Representative Lawrence R. Klemin, (R-Bismarck).  “This bill reflects our understanding that even children who commit serious crimes are capable of change.  I introduced this bill to give hope to those children who do change, so that they may have the opportunity to demonstrate to a judge that they are deserving of a second chance.”


Influenced by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions grounded in adolescent development research holding that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and should not be subject to the country’s harshest penalties, the nation has increasingly moved away from life-without-parole sentences for children. In five years, the number of states that ban sentences of life in prison without the possibility of release for children has nearly quadrupled to a total of 19 plus the District of Columbia. This includes North Dakota’s neighboring states of Montana and Wyoming. An additional four states ban life-without-parole sentences for children in most cases. North Dakota and Arkansas both passed legislation on the issue this year.


“This victory in North Dakota reflects the recent groundswell of support for abolishing death-in-prison sentences for children,” said Jody Kent Lavy, executive director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Most importantly, it brings hope to those told as children they were worth nothing more than dying in prison.”


Research by the Sentencing Project has shown that most children sentenced to life without parole have suffered extreme trauma and abuse. More than 80 percent of these youth witnessed violence in their homes and neighborhoods on a regular basis. More than 50 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls were physically abused; More than 20 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls were sexually abused.


“Like many of the people serving these sentences, I experienced severe abuse and neglect as a child, and I eventually joined a gang for a sense of family,” said Xavier McElrath-Bey, who was incarcerated as a child and now serves as senior advisor and national advocate at CFSY.  “At age 13, I was responsible for the tragic death of another child.  I spent 13 years in prison.  I learned my lesson and grew into a remorseful adult. Today, at age 41, I am living proof that no child is beyond redemption, which is why youth should never be sentenced to die in prison.”


“Every day within the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation we see people who turn their lives around in prison, in spite of the obstacle of incarceration,” said Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Kids can and do grow up; and as they develop, they change. None of us are the same at 50 as we were at 16. Providing the possibility for judicial sentencing review decreases the likelihood of continued violent behavior behind bars and provides incentives to engage in meaningful rehabilitative programs so as to be considered more favorably by the sentencing court.”


In addition to giving people sentenced to life without parole the ability to have their sentences reviewed, the North Dakota bill will allow any child sentenced to more than 20 years the opportunity for a possible sentence reduction. As a result, all North Dakota children who commit crimes will now have the opportunity to prove their capacity for change and that they are deserving to re-enter and live in free society.