Legislatures in several states, including California, Illinois, and Michigan, are considering proposals to end the practice of sentencing offenders under the age of 18 to life in prison without parole.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are at least 2,380 individuals currently serving life sentences in the United States for crimes they committed when they were 17 years old or younger. The offenders were tried in state courts under laws allowing the transfer of children, in certain circumstances, from the juvenile justice system to the adult courts and in states that have lowered the age of jurisdiction in adult criminal court to 17 years old or younger. Thirty-eight states allow life without parole for teenage offenders, according to Human Rights Watch, which has been campaigning against the practice for several years.
Backers of legislation to eliminate life without parole for youth offenses say the practice does not take into consideration neuroscientific research indicating that immature brains lack impulse control and the ability that adults have to use judgment.
Researchers have documented that children cannot be expected to have achieved the same level of psychological and neurological development as an adult even when they become teenagers. Additionally, the practice has been shown to disproportionally affect racial minorities, and that teenagers who receive such sentences often had poor legal representation.
A package of bills that would eliminate life without parole for children is pending in the Michigan legislature. Currently, 300 individuals are serving that sentence in Michigan. The legislation makes these individuals eligible for parole consideration and allows judges to use discretion when deciding what type of punishment best fits the crime.
Excerpt from: Criminal Justice Newsletter, February 15, 2008