The number of states that ban sentences of life in prison without parole for children ages 17 and younger has more than tripled in the last five years, and traditionally conservative states are leading the way, according to Righting Wrongs: The Five-Year Groundswell of State Bans on Life Without Parole for Children, a report released today by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY).
In 2011, just five states banned life without parole for children. Today, 17 states ban the practice, and another five ban the sentences in most cases. Several additional states have never imposed the sentence on a child. This rapid rate of change in recent years illustrates an emerging national consensus against the use of life-without-parole sentences on children—a punishment only imposed on children in the United States.
“There is tremendous momentum nationwide from conservatives and liberals alike to end the draconian practice of condemning children to die in prison,” said Jody Kent Lavy, CFSY executive director. “When we sentence children to life without parole, we fail to acknowledge what every parent knows and adolescent development research has proven: children are not simply little adults. Their brains, like their bodies, are not fully formed. Because of where they are developmentally, they do not have adult levels of judgment or ability to assess risks, are more susceptible to peer pressure, and have a unique capacity for change. That is why they should never be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.”
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, (R-WY), is among those supporting the effort to ban these sentences.
“Before I served our great nation, I too was a juvenile offender who committed serious crimes, risking my own life and the lives of others,” Simpson said in a letter calling on state legislators across the country to pass legislation banning life-without-parole sentences for children. “With minor changes in the facts of the crime, I could have spent years—or perhaps my entire life—in the clink. I am living proof that youth possess a unique capacity to grow and change. The child who seems helpless today could go on and change the world. That’s why I strongly support the work of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth which is actively working to end the practice of sentencing children to die in prison.”
States throughout the country are moving away from the practice of sentencing children to life without parole with leadership from a robust national alliance built by the CFSY that includes conservative and progressive state legislators, prosecutors, judges, and, significantly, family members of people who have died as a result of crimes committed by youth and members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), a national network of individuals formerly incarcerated for serious crimes committed as children.
States in every region of the country have eliminated life-without-parole sentences for children. Legislation to eliminate the practice has passed in Republican-led states such as Wyoming and Utah, and Democratic-led states, including Delaware and Connecticut.
The CFSY’s report released today highlights these important reforms, key stakeholders involved in abolition efforts, and some of the lives impacted by the recent bans on the practice of sentencing children to die in prison.
“I’m incredibly grateful to the Campaign for all the work they’ve done to change the dialogue regarding youthful offenders,” said Dr. Linda White of Texas. “In spite of being the mother of a young woman who was killed by two 15-year-olds, I see only waste—wasted lives and wasted funds better spent on preservation—in keeping children locked up until they die behind bars. It also seems really cruel to their families, who become one more set of victims.”
Read the CFSY’s new report, Righting Wrongs: The Five Year Groundswell of State Bans on Life Without Parole for Children: