December 1, 2007

Study: Sentencing Children to Die in Prison

Test your knowledge:

1. How many nations sentence children to life in prison?

2. What states have the most people serving life for crimes committed before they reached adulthood?

3. What is the minimum age at which a child can be sentenced to life without parole?

4. Which children are most likely to receive life sentences?



1. Just two - the United States and Israel. But Israel is in far distant second place, with only seven juveniles serving life as compared with 2,387 in the United States.

2. Pennsylvania is in first place, with 433; California is in second place, with 227.

3. Of the 44 states that permit life without parole for juveniles, 13 have no minimum age, and one sets the minimum at age 8.

4. More than half are first-time offenders. African Americans are 10 times more likely than white juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole. In California, the disparity is twice that – a 20:1 ratio.

These are some of the data from a new study, "Sentencing Children to Die in Prison," by the University of San Francisco's Center for Law and Global Justice. The study was highlighted in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 19.

The racial disparity is very apparent to me in the cases that I've been involved in. Even when arrest rates are controlled, African American boys are far more likely than anyone else to be sentenced as adults. This is illustrated in the following graph, from California's Center on Crime and Juvenile Justice:

Yesterday's Ledger Dispatch (Amador County, California) has a long article on efforts in many states to undo the knee-jerk tough-on-juveniles statutes of the past decade. The article, "Prosecuting kids as adults: Some say laws too harsh, states taking second look," is available online. California, which you'll recall from the above quiz is #2 in the nation in locking up kids for life, is one of the states with reform legislation pending. The California Juvenile Life Without Parole Reform Act (SB 999) would allow people sentenced for juvenile crimes to apply for parole after serving 25 years. The measure is opposed by police and prosecutor associations.

California also has a pending challenge to the law as cruel and unusual punishment, barred by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Antonio Nunez was 14 years old when he accepted a ride home from a 27-year-old man he had met at a party. On the way, the adult kidnapped another man. Although no one was injured in the 2003 incident, Nunez was convicted of kidnapping and attempted murder and is serving life without parole.

Juvies is a recent film chronicling the lives of a group of 12 California youngsters prosecuted as adults and sent to adult prisons.