Cruel and unusual: sentencing 13- and 14-year-old children to die in prison
In the United States dozens of 13- and 14-year-old children have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole after being prosecuted as adults. While the United States Supreme Court recently declared that death by execution is unconstitutional for juveniles, young children continue to be sentenced to imprisonment until death with very little scrutiny or review.
This study, undertaken by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), documents 73 cases where children 13 and 14 years of age have been condemned to death in prison. Almost all of these children currently lack legal representation and in most of these cases the propriety and constitutionality of their extreme sentences have never been reviewed.
Most of the sentences imposed on these children were mandatory: the court could not give any consideration to the child’s age or life history. Some of the children were charged with crimes that do not involve homicide or even injury; many were convicted for offences where older teenagers or adults were involved and primarily responsible for the crime; nearly two-thirds are children of colour.
The report calls for life imprisonment without parole for young children to be abolished. States that impose death in prison sentences on young children should immediately eliminate the practice and provide opportunities for parole to people who are currently sentenced to imprisonment until death for crimes committed at 13 or 14.
EJI has launched a litigation campaign to challenge death in prison sentences imposed on young children. This report is intended to illuminate this cruel and unusual punishment inflicted on children, particularly for those who have been without legal help for so long that the procedural obstacles to winning relief in court will be formidable. Increased public awareness, coupled with informed activity by advocacy groups, will be necessary to reform policies that reflect a lack of perspective and hope for young children.