U.S. Alone in Sentencing Life Without Parole for Minors

The New York Times is starting a series on "commonplace aspects of the American justice system that are actually unique in the world" and begins with the possibility of sentencing juvenile offenders to prison for life without any chance of parole:

In December, the United Nations took up a resolution calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children and young teenagers. The vote was 185 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter.

Indeed, the United States stands alone in the world in convicting young adolescents as adults and sentencing them to live out their lives in prison. According to a new report, there are 73 Americans serving such sentences for crimes they committed at 13 or 14.

James Whitman, whose fine book on comparative criminal justice I’ve read but never gotten around to reviewing, comments on the differences between U.S. and European thinking on criminal justice: 

Specialists in comparative law acknowledge that there have been occasions when young murderers who would have served life terms in the United States were released from prison in Europe and went on to kill again. But comparing legal systems is difficult, in part because the United States is a more violent society and in part because many other nations imprison relatively few people and often only for repeat violent offenses.

“I know of no systematic studies of comparative recidivism rates,” said James Q. Whitman, who teaches comparative criminal law at Yale. “I believe there are recidivism problems in countries like Germany and France, since those are countries that ordinarily incarcerate only dangerous offenders, but at some point they let them out and bad things can happen.”

The differences in the two approaches, legal experts said, are rooted in politics and culture. The European systems emphasize rehabilitation, while the American one stresses individual responsibility and punishment.

Corrections professionals and criminologists here and abroad tend to agree that violent crime is usually a young person’s activity, suggesting that eventual parole could be considered in most cases. But the American legal system is more responsive to popular concerns about crime and attitudes about punishment, while justice systems abroad tend to be administered by career civil servants rather than elected legislators, prosecutors and judges.

I’ll have some comments about this a bit later, as time permits.

5 thoughts on “U.S. Alone in Sentencing Life Without Parole for Minors

  1. I get the distinct impression that ‘Life without parole’ simply does not exist in the UK any more whether for young offenders or older criminals.

    The UK used to have a system which worked like that, because criminal sentences of this kind were subject to review by the Home Secretary, a major politician (and usually one ambitious for higher things). But the courts have been steadily chewing away at this prerogative basing their reasoning on the European Charter of Human Rights (I believe), so now the judgement of the Home Secretary is subject to being overruled by judicial review.

    The most notorious case of juvenile crime here was the Bulger murders in which a couple of ten year olds murderd a toddler. They were released when they reached their majority or soon after, I believe. But as I mentioned a different process applies to adult offenders – but with the same result.

    I don’t know whether this is the case elsewhere in Europe but it makes sense that if European countries don’t incarcerate adult offenders indefinately they won’t selectively do so to criminals who were children when they committed their offense.

    One last point: When people attack the death penalty in the US they invariably argue that ‘life without parole’ is a preferable option.

    Except for minors, it seems. Ok, I can see how one could argue that. But by allowing really serious criminals out on the streets becaue of their age when they committed the crime (or any other reason), we statistically condemn some innocent person to be maimed or murdered. Jack, Joe, and Laura may not kill again, but John will.

    It’s a Type 1, type 2 problem. Is it better to maximise the individual liberty of the criminals by releasing them early when possibly many or most of them are not a danger to the public? Or is it better to keep innocent non-criminals alive by keeping a class of dangerous offenders in the pokey?


  2. Sebastian, my point is that people who attack lifetime incarceration of minors are almost invariably also against the death penalty. So they are for ‘life without parole’ – but not for minors.

    There is a paradox here.

    People who make both arguments are in strong danger of the rights of prisoners only while disregarding the rights and interests of the victims of their crimes and the interests of the general population.

    I think there are diminishing degrees of moral responsibility depending upon the age of the offender. A young child s generally acepted to have less responsibility. I would be against jailing a 10 year old for life.

    But a ‘child’ of 16 or 17 is very close to the adult. If he or she doesn’t have a moral sense by that time chances are they will not develop one later on. Releasing a criminal because they were a day shy of their 18th birthday when they killed someone strikes me as wrong.


  3. @ Don

    “But a ‘child’ of 16 or 17 is very close to the adult.”

    I remember when I was playing basketball in high school. With 2.5 to go in the last quarter I went for a buzzer beater. I only hit the hoop. I can assure you it was very close, too. If you had been the ref, Don, would you have awarded me those 3 points? Because if you had, my high school time would have been SO much happier. Just thinking of how much pussy I would have gotten after the game…


  4. @Don:

    Sebastian, my point is that people who attack lifetime incarceration of minors are almost invariably also against the death penalty. So they are for ‘life without parole’ – but not for minors.

    If I say “I’d rather have hay fever than cancer,” that doesn’t mean I want to have hay fever, it just means I consider it the lesser evil. I can’t even imagine what could have given you the idea that “they” genuinely like life without parole so much that it’s “a paradox” that they don’t want our precious children to have a part of that blessing.


  5. @HodgepodgeYeah, some people accept life as game with a set of over-simplified, largely arbitrary rules imposed by random authorities. I don’t know whether you live in Germany, but if you do, you’ve come to just the place.


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