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Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison

NCJ Number
Date Published
November 2007
43 pages
This brief, by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), documents 73 cases where children 13 and 14 years of age have been condemned to death in prison.
Over 2,225 juveniles in the United States, under the age of 17, have been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole after being prosecuted as adults. All the cases presented in this brief raise important legal, penological, and moral issues; almost all the children documented in this brief currently lack legal representation, and in most of these cases, the propriety and constitutionality of their extreme sentences have never been reviewed. Many of the cases show that children were convicted for offenses where older teenagers or adults were involved, and primarily responsible for the crime; nearly two-thirds are children of color. Such harsh sentences for the youngest offenders, children who are 13 and 14 is cruel and unusual and in violation of the eighth amendment to the United States Constitution. Sentences of life imprisonment with no parole also violate international law, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world except the United States and Somalia. The imposition of life imprisonment without parole sentences on 13 and 14 year olds documented in this report reveals the consequences of surrendering children to the adult criminal justice system. These sentences undermine the efforts of parents, teachers, lawyers, activists, legislators, policymakers, judges, child advocates, clergy, students, and ordinary citizens to ensure the well-being of young children in society. Life imprisonment without parole for young children should be abolished. States that impose death in prison sentences on young children should immediately eliminate the practice, and provide opportunities for parole to people who are currently sentenced to imprisonment until death for crimes committed at 13 or 14. Recent legal developments, international law, and medical insights on child development provide powerful support for ending life without parole sentences for young children. Notes