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Life without parole

by ask Thu Oct 13th, 2005 at 01:15:49 PM EST

A very brief diary.  I was just skimming the online version of Aftenposten - Norway's paper of record - and came across an article about punishment of minors.  The article was primarily based on this recently released report from Human Rights Watch:

The Rest of Their Lives
Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States

I only read the summary, but that alone is quite illuminating.  I guess we keep piling it on here at BT for the US - in this case, it is well deserved.

Some "highlights":

This report is the first ever national analysis of life without parole sentences for children. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have discovered that there are currently at least 2,225 people incarcerated in the United States who have been sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for crimes they committed as children. In the United States, departments of corrections do not maintain publicly accessible and accurate statistics about child offenders incarcerated in adult prisons, and there is no national depository of these data. Therefore, we were able to collect data on individuals sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as children only by requesting that it be specially produced for us by each state's corrections department.

Virtually all countries in the world reject the punishment of life without parole for child offenders. At least 132 countries reject life without parole for child offenders in domestic law or practice. And all countries except the United States and Somalia have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which explicitly forbids "life imprisonment without possibility of release" for "offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age." Of the 154 countries for which Human Rights Watch was able to obtain data, only three currently have people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children, and it appears that those four countries combined have only about a dozen such cases.

So the US has not ratified the CRC, there are at least 2,225 prisoners convicted to life without parole for crimes committed while they were children vs. "about a dozen" in the rest of the world that can be surveyed!

Fortunately, there are states that do not allow this shameful practice, but they are in a tiny minority - only 7 states and the District of Columbia prohibit such harsh sentencing.

Our research shows significant differences among the states in the use of life without parole sentences for children. For example, Virginia, Louisiana, and Michigan have rates that are three to seven-and-a-half times higher than the national average of 1.77 per 100,000 children nationwide. At the other end of the spectrum, New Jersey and Utah permit life without parole for children but have no child offenders currently serving the sentence. Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, New York, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia all prohibit the sentence for youth offenders.

Should the US remain in solidarity with Somalia as the only nations that have not ratified the CRC?

The above diary entry was posted at Booman Tribune last night and made it to the recommended list.  A comment today prompted me to cross-post here:
Cultural differences (none / 1)
Why are there deep cultural differences between Europe and the U.S. Why are people in the US so bloodthirsty and punitive?  I mean you can account for deep cultural differences between, say, Europe and China, by pointing to thousands and thousands of years of history.  But most people in the US are European-Americans--their ancestors came from Europe.

Some point to the Calvinist influence in the US.  But what about Switzerland?  That's where Calvinism started.  They don't lock up children and throw away the key.

Did you post this at European Tribune too, Ask?
by Time Waits for no Woman (time.waits_at_gmail.com) on Thu Oct 13th, 2005 at 12:34:44 PM EDT

Your observations - posted here, or at BT - are most welcome.

by ask on Thu Oct 13th, 2005 at 01:21:07 PM EST
Maybe the closeness of dictatorships in our history is the cause, resulting in more doubt in the judgement of jurors. Or the horrors of WWII?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Oct 13th, 2005 at 02:09:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know, DoDo.
The lessons of two world wars did not seem to bear when former Yugoslavia started to disintegrate more than a decade ago.
I'm wondering whether this has to do with the individual vs. community issue.  In the US, the focus tends to be more on individuals and their success (or lack thereof) while the welfare states of Europe have more focus on the success of the overall community.  
By extension, the failure of an individual in the US through criminal behaviour is his own - (s)he's a threat to society, and punishment will be harsh.  In Europe, the community takes some responsibility for the failures of individuals and criminals are not only punished - there is also an attempt to rehabilitate to return the individual to a productive role in society.
by ask on Thu Oct 13th, 2005 at 02:34:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you've basically got it.  Also at a more right brain level, Americans see cases where, for example, a big 12 year old boy brutally murders a small 4 year old girl, and they are outraged.  Right now, I think the majority of Americans think that boy's moral standards are formed, and he is likely to do that again in the future.  They don't want that to happen, so they want him put away.

America is a representative democracy, where opinions change over time.  It's possible this view will change.  But right now, that's what they think.  I'm guessing that Americans are interested in the fact that most of the world disagrees with them, but would say at the end of the day, it's their country, and they'll decide--so they won't support the government signing something that is against their views.  

by wchurchill on Fri Oct 14th, 2005 at 02:41:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Uhh, congratulations then.

You successfully entered the Middle Ages. :)
According to the German wikipedia Romans accepted 8 year olds as fully responsible adults while savage German barbarians in the Middle Ages distinguished between children, teenagers and adults.

See my comment below.

Not to mention the fact that most European countries are representative democracies too. Just in case some people don´t know it.
And that some European countries changed their views a hundred years back when they were allegedly Imperial monarchies. And not an enlightened republic like the US of A....

Just saying....

by Detlef (Detlef1961_at_yahoo_dot_de) on Fri Oct 14th, 2005 at 07:35:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not challenging the right of European democracies to make a different decision--it's perfectly their right, and i applaud it.  I'm just agreeing with the poster who I responded to, as to why Americans believe as they do--and that they have their right to decide that, and not go along with everyone else in the world.  It's a free country.
by wchurchill on Fri Oct 14th, 2005 at 07:51:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
to your post. And it actually supports the point that you make there. It was the phrase "welfare democracy."  For some reason I recoiled at that. People in the US are so programmed to have negative reactions to the word "welfare."  But what is wrong about the state caring about the welfare of its inhabitants?  I don't know if my initial reaction is indicative of the cultural differences I first wrote about, or just the result of Republican brain-washing--not that I ever thought myself susceptible to that.

La vie n'est de soi ni bien ni mal, elle est la place du bien et du mal selon que vous faites.
by Time Waits for no Woman (time.waits_at_gmail.com) on Fri Oct 14th, 2005 at 10:14:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I think due to cultural differences.
I used the term 'welfare states' - and I meant to convey something positive.
by ask on Sat Oct 15th, 2005 at 11:58:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Look at

According to the history overview there, the idea of different "punishments" for children, teenagers and adults date back to the Middle Ages.

Anyway, German criminal law in 1871 codified it into three stages:

  • children till age 12 can´t be prosecuted (in some German states back then age 14)
  • Between age 12(14) and 18 milder punishments
  • Starting with age 18 punishment as adults
(And with the first special "Youth" courts and prisons at the beginning of the 20. century in Imperial Germany.)

And in 1923 in the Weimar Republic they codified a special "juvenile criminal law", the basis for todays law (somewhat different from the age groups mentioned above).

So the idea of milder punishments for "teenagers" to "educate" them, not punish them as adults, is older than the Nazi dictatorship and WW2. The first steps were even taken before WW1.

by Detlef (Detlef1961_at_yahoo_dot_de) on Fri Oct 14th, 2005 at 11:07:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Something I wanted to check in the report was easy to find:

Nationwide, the estimated rate at which black youth receive life without parole sentences (6.6 per 10,000) is ten times greater than the rate for white youth (0.6 per 10,000).

Of course, some people may say that this proves that black teenage serious criminality is ten times higher than white. Others may say it's evidence of racial bias in the police/judicial system, and I'll let you guess what I think...

It's not that there's no police/judicial racism in Europe, but the harshness meted out to young blacks in the States seems to me to be on another level.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Oct 13th, 2005 at 03:32:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Our local radio station did a piece on this a few days ago.  I had no idea there were children being given life without parol.  And I bet the vast majority of Americans don't know it either.

As for ratifying the CRC, the US has had a bad case of "no one can tell us what to do" lately.  I'd venture to bet that, if asked if they think it is wrong to give a child a life sentence, most Americans would say yes.  But ask them if the the US should obey some international law, regardless what it is, many would hesitate to say yes.  And that's how the pols get away with it.  That and the fact that most people never even hear about these things.

The link to the radio program is here.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Fri Oct 14th, 2005 at 04:26:12 PM EST
bad case of "no one can tell us what to do" lately
 I definitely agree with this comment.  And I think you're right if people are asked the without parole question in a theoretical way.  But if confronted with the type of example I mentioned above, I think they'll go the other way, and in fact I think that's why most states support this position.
by wchurchill on Fri Oct 14th, 2005 at 04:52:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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