Life in prison without parole is the harshest criminal sentence short of the death penalty. In many countries, that punishment is banned outright or limited to the most extenuating circumstances. But the United States has the unique distinction of applying that sentence to some juveniles. There are currently an estimated 2,500 people serving life without parole in the United States who were sentenced when they were younger than 18.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is hearing a case this week asserting that these sentences violate international human rights. Over the past few years, the United States has made significant progress away from sentencing juveniles to life without parole (LWOP). In one case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the sentence could not be applied to juvenile crimes other than homicide. In another, it invalidated mandatory life without parole sentences for particular crimes, reasoning that a child’s character is not as “well formed,” meaning both that they are prone to recklessness, and that their traits are significantly more likely to change over time. But neither of these rulings eliminated the sentence for juveniles entirely. Since Miller v. Alabama, courts have decided state-by-state whether the ruling invalidating mandatory LWOP sentences is retroactive, and many have decided it is not. Even going forward, judges retain the discretion to sentence some kids to life without parole, so long as it is not mandatory.
And judges have exercised that power. In Michigan, courts have already sentenced two more juveniles to life without parole since the Miller ruling just three years ago. One of them is 16-year-old Juwan Wickware. Wickware wasn’t the shooter in the case that led to his conviction, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. He and another young friend robbed a pizza store, and his friend shot and killed a man. “Although this was Juwan’s first offense, and despite a documented learning disability, troubled home environment, and a psychological evaluation concluding that Juwan could be rehabilitated, the judge sentenced Juwan to life in prison with no possibility of parole (LWOP),” according to the ACLU’s Steven M. Watt. “The boy who pulled the trigger was acquitted because a witness could not identify him.” Michigan courts have not yet made the ruling retroactive the Miller ruling retroactive, meaning some 350 people overall are still serving these sentences in Michigan alone.
Wickware is one of 32 inmates whose life without parole sentences are at issue in the case before the human rights commission that examines alleged human rights violations in the Western Hemisphere. Each of these individuals was given that sentence because they were charged as adults, rather under juvenile law that considers the particular vulnerabilities of children.
“The United States stands alone in the world in the practice of sentencing children to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and there is a near universal consensus against the use of the sentence around the world,” said JoAnn Kamuf Ward, who co-directs the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia University and argued to abolish the sentences before the Human Rights Commission Tuesday.
In fact, many countries and judicial bodies deem the punishment a human rights violation for any person of any age, even as the United States has increasingly turned to the punishment even for non-violent offenses. In July, the top European Rights Court ruled that the punishment is inhuman and degrading, calling into question the sentences of three men who received the punishment in the United Kingdom. “[I]f such a prisoner is incarcerated without any prospect of release and without the possibility of having his life sentence reviewed, there is the risk that he can never atone for his offence,” the panel wrote. “Whatever the prisoner does in prison, however exceptional his progress towards rehabilitation, his punishment remains fixed and unreviewable.”