Putting the kids away

By Michelle Chen May 08, 2009

Compared to children in other countries with similar resources, America’s youth tend to be a mediocre bunch in rankings of education, infant survival and overall well-being. But the United States has earned one major distinction in how it treats youngest citizens. Nationwide, more than 2,500 individuals are set to die in prison for crimes they committed as children. In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, Human Rights Watch stated today, “there is not a single individual serving this sentence in the rest of the world.” So, America clearly leads the world in producing monstrous killer youth. Though, it’s hard to square that this finding from HRW’s research:

“approximately 26 percent of the youth sentenced to life without parole had not actually committed a murder and were convicted for their role in aiding and abetting or participating in a felony. In these cases, someone else was the primary actor in committing the crime.”

In contrast to the hyped image of the rabid “juvenile super-predator,” the majority were first-time offenders. But they did have some things in common with their adult counterparts in the system: they were disproportionately Black and almost all male. Though comprehensive data was not available for all states, HRW found that the most severe racial disparities in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California, “where black youth are between 18 and 48 times more likely to be serving a sentence of life without parole than white youth.” Evidently, we may not have more dangerous kids—just more kids caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and very likely, with the wrong skin color. Activists point out that aside from the sheer barbarity of condemning a child to life behind bars—and science that argues in favor of greater leniency toward child offenders—our criminal justice system is uniquely ill-equipped to administer this punishment. You might say it’s no wonder we have so many children in prison for life, in light of epidemic racial disparities at every phase of the criminal process, incompetency plaguing law enforcement procedures, and a lack of due process for child defendants. International law, HRW argues, prohibits life sentences without parole for youth under the age of 18. International human rights bodies have found the United States to be in violation of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination—another area where U.S. exceptionalism reigns. Before all those young lives run out in our nation’s prisons, lawmakers can step in to give some of them a chance to rehabilitate and rejoin their communities by passing the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act. The bill would bar life-without-parole sentences juvenile crimes in the federal system, and broaden parole opportunities to youth offenders in state prisons who have already served a number of years. The legislation wouldn’t fix the myriad flaws of state and federal corrections policy, but it would demonstrate to the rest of the world that, having stolen the youth of so many child “offenders,” the American criminal justice system is finally ready to grow up. Image: Circleville Youth Center in Circleville, Ohio (AP)