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.