Before 1980, life without parole was rarely imposed on children. The number of child offenders who received the sentence each year began to increase in the late 1980s, reaching 50 in 1989. It peaked in 1996 at 152 and then began to drop off; in 2003, 54 child offenders entered prison with the sentence. But states have by no means abandoned the use of life without parole for child offenders: the estimated rate at which the sentence is imposed on children nationwide remains at least three times higher today than it was fifteen years ago. In fact, the proportion of youth offenders convicted of murder who receive life without parole has been increasing, suggesting a tendency among states to punish them with increasing severity. For example, in 1990 there were 2,234 youth convicted of murder in the United States, 2.9 percent of whom were sentenced to life without parole. Ten years later, in 2000, the number of youth murderers had dropped to 1,006, but 9.1 percent were sentenced to life without parole.
In addition, in eleven out of the seventeen years between 1985 and 2001, youth convicted of murder in the United States were more likely to enter prison with a life without parole sentence than adult murder offenders. Even when we consider murder offenders sentenced to either life without parole or death sentences, in four of those seventeen years, youth were more likely than adults to receive one of those two most punitive sentences.
Such harsh treatment for youth offenders cannot be squared with the most fundamental tenets of human rights law. International standards recognize that children, a particularly vulnerable group, are entitled to special care and protection because they are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally. States are required to offer a range of alternatives to institutionalization. The imprisonment of a child should always be a measure of last resort, focused on the child's rehabilitation, and for the shortest suitable period of time. While incarceration may be proper for youth convicted of very serious crimes such as murder, this report argues that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is never appropriate for youth offenders.
The dramatic increase in the imposition of life without parole sentences on child offenders in the United States is, at least in part, a consequence of widespread changes in U.S. criminal justice policies that gathered momentum in the last decades of the twentieth century. Responding to increases in crime and realizing the political advantages of promoting tough law and order policies, state and federal legislators steadily increased the length of prison sentences for different crimes and expanded the types of offenders facing prison sentences. They also promoted adult trials for child offenders by lowering the minimum age for criminal court jurisdiction, authorizing automatic transfers from juvenile to adult courts, and increasing the authority of prosecutors to file charges against children directly in criminal court rather than proceeding in the juvenile justice system. The United States thus abandoned its commitment to a juvenile justice system and the youth rehabilitation principles embedded in it.
"Adult time for adult crime" may be a catchy phrase, but it reflects a poor understanding of criminal justice principles. If the punishment is to fit the crime, both the nature of the offense and the culpability or moral responsibility of the offender must be taken into account. As the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized, the blameworthiness of children cannot be equated with that of adults, even when they commit the same crime. Most recently, in Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Court ruled that the execution of child offenders was unconstitutional, finding that juveniles are "categorically less culpable" than adult criminals. The ruling noted that juveniles lack the "well-formed" identities of adults, are susceptible to "immature and irresponsible behavior," and vulnerable to "negative influences and outside pressures." Neuroscientists have recently identified anatomical bases for these differences between juveniles and adults, establishing the behavioral significance of the less developed brains of children.