Amnesty International is calling on the US justice system to stop sentencing
young men and women to "life in prison without the possibility of release"
for crimes they committed when were under 18 years old. More than 2,500
prisoners are currently serving such sentences in US prisons today.
In a new report, "'This is where I'm going to be when I die': Children facing
life imprisonment without the possibility of release in the United States,"
Amnesty charges that children as young as 11 at the time of the crime have
faced life imprisonment without parole in the United States -- the only
country in the world to impose this sentence on children.
The report says, "Sentencing children to die in prison flouts a principle of
international human rights law recognized and respected across the world,
except by the USA. No other country is currently known to impose life
imprisonment" without the possibility of parole for crimes, however serious,
committed when they were children.
"In the United States, people under 18 cannot vote, buy alcohol or lottery
tickets or consent to most forms of medical treatment, but they can be
sentenced to die in prison for their actions. This needs to change," says
Natacha Mension, U. S. campaigner at Amnesty International (AI).
In the United States, life without parole can be imposed on juvenile
offenders as a mandatory punishment -- without consideration of mitigating
factors such as history of abuse or trauma, degree of involvement in the
crime, mental health status, or amenability to rehabilitation.
"We are not excusing crimes committed by children or minimizing their
consequences, but the simple reality is that these sentences ignore the special
potential for rehabilitation and change that young offenders have," said
In May 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court said life without parole is "an
especially harsh punishment for a juvenile," as the young offender will
serve, on average, more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison
than an older offender. "A 16-year-old and a 75-year-old each sentenced to
life without parole receive the same punishment in name only," the Court
Eighteen months after prohibiting this sentence for non-homicide crimes
committed by under-18-year-olds, on November 8, 2011, the Supreme Court
agreed to consider this issue in relation to crimes involving murder. It will
not issue a decision until the second quarter of 2012 at the earliest.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entered into force
more than two decades ago, expressly prohibits the imposition of life
imprisonment without the possibility of release for offenses, however
serious, committed by people under 18 years old. All countries except the
United States and Somalia have ratified the Convention.
"It is long past time for the United States to ratify the Convention without
reservations or other limiting conditions and to fully implement its
prohibition on the use of life imprisonment without release against children,
including in relation to the cases of those already sentenced," said Mension.
But the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which
the USA did ratify in 1992, acknowledges the need for special treatment of
children in the criminal justice system and emphasizes the importance of
procedures that take account of their age and facilitate their rehabilitation
The report says this international prohibition "does not stem from any
inclination to excuse crimes committed by children or to minimize the
consequences of such crimes for the victims and their families. It stems,
rather, from recognition that children, who are still developing, are not fully
mature, and hence not fully responsible for their actions."
These "offenders have a special potential for rehabilitation and change. It is
not that young people should not be held accountable for their actions. It is
that this accountability must be achieved in ways that reflect the offender's
young age and his or her is utterly incompatible with basic principles of
Amnesty International's 34-page report illustrates the issue through the
stories of Christi Cheramie, Jacqueline Montanez and David Young.
On November 30, Christi Cheramie, who is serving life without parole in
Louisiana, will submit an application for executive clemency with the state
Board of Pardons. Christi was sentenced to life in prison without the
possibility of release in 1994, when she was 16 years old for the killing of
her 18-year-old fiance's great aunt.
She pleaded guilty just before her trial in adult court began, fearing she
could be sentenced to death if the trial went ahead. Her guilty plea prevents
her from directly appealing her conviction or sentence.
A psychiatrist who saw Christi prior to her trial said that she was a
"depressed, dependent, and insecure" 16-year-old who "seems to have been
fearful of crossing" her fiance, who she maintains committed the crime.
Christi's childhood was marked by sexual abuse. At the age of 13, she was
hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic after trying to commit suicide on at least
After spending half of her life in prison, Christi believes she has changed in
many ways. She has obtained a high school equivalency diploma, a degree
in agricultural studies, and teaches a number of classes at the prison. A
warden has stated that she is "worthy of a second chance."
A clemency campaign is also pending for a second person whose case is
profiled in AI's report. Jacqueline Montanez is the only woman in Illinois
serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for
a crime committed as a child. A victim of child abuse, Jacqueline began
abusing drugs and alcohol at the age of nine. Jacqueline's abuser was her
step-father, a gang leader, who also involved her in the drug trade as a very
young child and groomed her to be his "little soldier." After running away
from home and joining a rival gang, she and two older women shot and
killed two adult male members of her step-father's gang.
Because she was 15 at the time of the crime and charged with first degree
murder, she was automatically tried in adult criminal court. This denied the
court system the opportunity of conducting a transfer hearing to determine
whether her case ought to have been tried in juvenile court where factors
such as her young age, home environment or amenability to rehabilitation
would have been considered. Jacqueline was also automatically sentenced to
life without parole due to her conviction; the sentencing court had no
discretion to consider her history, her age, the circumstances of the offense
or her potential for rehabilitation.
Now 35 years old, she expresses deep remorse for her actions and believes
that she has grown into a very different person. She has obtained a high
school equivalency diploma and has become a certified trainer of service
dogs for disabled people. She grieves for her victims and the pain that their
families have suffered.
In Illinois, 80 percent of children in prison for life without parole received
mandatory sentences; about 82 percent are prisoners of color. That number
is even higher in Cook County, where the Montanez case originated. These
findings were published by the Illinois Coalition on the Fair Sentencing of
Children in its 2008 report, "Categorically Less Culpable, Children
Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Illinois."
Jacqueline's petition for executive clemency will be submitted to the Illinois
governor and the Prisoner Review Board in January 2012.
David Young is one of two teenagers arrested and charged for the murder of
Charles Welch in 1997. He was automatically charged in adult criminal
court as required by North Carolina law for any criminal offense committed
by anyone age 16 or older. Young's co-defendant, who shot the victim,
pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 19 to 23 years
in prison. David was convicted of first-degree felony murder and was
sentenced to life without parole.
Young grew up in a hostile community environment where his parents
abused drugs and his stepfather physically abused him and his mother. Now
32 years old, Young obtained his high school equivalency diploma and is in
solitary confinement after being stabbed by two prisoners.