Pa. leads U.S. in juveniles sentenced to life terms
WASHINGTON -- Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of prisoners serving life terms without parole for crimes committed as juveniles.
There are 2,225 such people in the country, most in a handful of states where judges don't have the discretion to impose lighter penalties, according to a report released today by Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch. They found that a surge in violent crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to tougher sentencing laws and a jump in the number of juveniles sent to prison for the rest of their lives.
Pennsylvania has the most such inmates (332), followed by Louisiana (317), Michigan (306) and Florida (273). All four states have laws making life without parole mandatory for certain crimes and don't allow judges to lighten sentences.
"Kids who commit serious crimes shouldn't go scot-free," said Alison Parker, senior researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But if they are too young to vote or buy cigarettes, they are too young to spend the rest of their lives behind bars."
The groups say the sentence amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for criminals who may not be mature enough to grasp the consequences of their actions. They want the United States to abolish the penalty, which is allowed in 43 states but imposed in only a handful of other countries.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that executing juvenile killers was unconstitutional, based in part on international sentiment that youths are less culpable than adults.
Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based Justice for All, a victims' advocacy group, said taking away life-without-parole sentences would remove a strong deterrent to crime.
"Judges don't legislate, legislative bodies do. They legislate based on the will of the people, and that will says life without parole is an appropriate punishment," she said.