Pa. leads nation in youths given life behind bars
By Ervin Dyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of youths given life prison
sentences without parole, according to two human rights groups.
For two years, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International USA have
compiled data from the 42 states that allow youths 17 and younger to go to
prison for life.
Across the nation, there are 2,225 people in prisons who went in as youth,
serving life without parole. Pennsylvania has the most: 332.
More than 90 percent were for convictions involving homicide or other
David Berger, the Amnesty International researcher who wrote the report,
said that studies also show that the United States now has more people in
prison than any other nation in the world. And, in the 13 nations --
including Tanzania, South Africa and Israel -- that permit life sentencing
of youths, there are only 12 children imprisoned with life without parole.
"There should be outrage," he said. "This really shows our nation is going
backward in regard to enacting policies that seek to redeem children."
Pennsylvania was followed by Louisiana (317), Michigan (306) and Florida
(273). All four states have laws that make life without parole mandatory for
certain crimes and judges are not allowed to lighten sentences.
The report is a snapshot of all inmates who entered prison systems as
juveniles with life sentences. It looked at no specific period and in one
case, interviews were held with a man who entered prison as a youth in 1978.
The report is troubling, said Marsha Levick, legal director for the Juvenile
Law Center in Pennsylvania.
"We're not suggesting that offenders not be sanctioned or held accountable
for committing serious crime, but we need to evaluate the appropriate degree
of severity of the sanctions. For children, there are still different
developmental characteristics that are relevant to culpability," she said.
"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 report found that six of the inmates were sentenced at age 13 and have
been locked away since, and 16 percent were imprisoned at age 13 to 15.
The report says more than 90 percent of child offenders are serving time for
homicide and nearly one-third were involved with felony murder, meaning they
took part in a crime in which murder occurred.
Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch believe a surge in violent
crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s is to blame for the stronger
sentencing laws that pushed more juvenile offenders into prison for the rest
of their lives.
Today, the number of sentences of life without parole continues to rise even
as the numbers of youth offenders are decreasing, said Mr. Berger.
"I think the system is reacting negatively," he said. "It's a myth that life
sentences are being used for children who are super predators, when in
reality, 59 percent of child offenders are in prison for the first offense."