Juvenile Life Without Parole and Neuroscience

(On May 17, the US Supreme Court ruled that Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences violated the 8th Amendment)

Based on neurobiology alone, it is inappropriate to conclude that a youth who commits a crime will not be amenable to rehabilitation at any point in the future. Thus, Sentencing a Juvenile to Life Without Parole (JLWOP) is inappropriate, unethical, and inhumane.

There are currently at least 2,500 youthful offenders serving life without parole in U.S. prisons. Nationally:

  • 59% of these individuals received their sentences for their first ever criminal conviction.
  • 16% were between the ages of 13 and 15 when they committed their crimes
  • 26% were sentenced under a felony murder charge where their offense did not involve carrying a weapon or pulling a trigger.
  • Minority children are most aggressively and disproportionately affected.

A 2005 Amnesty International study found that life without parole for juveniles is theoretically available in a dozen countries, but besides the U.S., only three others actually had teens serving such sentences — Israel with seven, South Africa with four and Tanzania with one.

The Convention On the Rights of the Child has been ratified by 192 nations. As of February 2008 the USA is

  • the only country in the entire world that continues to impose these draconian sentence
  • only one of two countries in the world that have not ratified the United Nations Convention On the Rights of the Child.

Pursuant to the Convention On the Rights of the Child, Article 37, the imposition of the juvenile death penalty or juvenile life without parole sentences are prohibited and constitute a human rights violation

JLWOP sentences contravene several international treaties including:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice
  • United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency
  • United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment
  • American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man
  • Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture

Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that the brain continues to mature and develop through adolescence and early adulthood.

  • Adolescent brains are undeveloped in areas associated with impulse control, emotional response, risk assessment and moral reasoning.
  • Adolescents use a more primitive part of their brain, are more likely to respond impulsively, and are less likely to think before acting.
  • Adolescents  are less likely to consider the consequences of their actions.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Roper V.  Simmons,(543, U.S. 5551, 123, S.Ct.) (2005) recognized that juveniles are inherently different from adults, and declared the juvenile death penalty to be unconstitutional. Their reasoning was based, in part, on our evolving understanding of adolescent brain development, and the increased potential for change and rehabilitation. Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said:

It would be misguided to equate the failing of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.” Roper v. Simmons, 543 US 551, 125 S.Ct.1183, 1195 (2005). The same reasoning is equally valid with respect to juvenile life without parole.

H.R. 2289, the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009, is trying to take this  into account. The bill would mandate that every JLWOP prisoner “receives, not less than once during the first 15 years of incarceration, and not less than every three years thereafter, a meaningful opportunity for parole or other form of supervised release.”

There is no evidence that life without parole has been an effective deterrent in reducing crime. It is even less likely to deter adolescents from crime, given their tendency to believe they are invincible, and their tendency to live and act in the present without considering the future consequences of their behaviors.

A primary focus of the juvenile court system has always been rehabilitation. This goal is now more attainable than ever through the use of improved assessment tools, effective community intervention programs, and treatment for underlying psychiatric disorders. (AACAP Policy Statement, written by the Juvenile Justice Reform Committee, June 2009)