New laws bring U.S. closer to respecting international norms on sentencing children

Laws being adopted across the United States, including in Delaware, Wyoming and Indiana, are bringing the United States closer to respecting international norms in the treatment of children in the criminal justice system.

On June 4, 2013, Delaware Governor Jack Markell signed Senate Bill 9, which eliminates juvenile life imprisonment without possibility of release by providing for new reviews of sentences of all children who are sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

In February, the Governor of Wyoming signed a law that abolishes life-without-parole sentences for children. The law, taking effect on July 1, 2013, provides that a minor sentenced to life imprisonment is eligible for parole after serving 25 years. The new law further empowers the governor to commute a life sentence imposed on a juvenile to a term of years.

Another bill adopted by the Connecticut House of Representatives in May effectively abolishes juvenile life without parole. For people serving prison sentences for crimes committed when they were 14 to 17 years old, the bill allows for a parole hearing after 12 years in prison or 60% of their sentence.

An Indiana law, spurred by a 2010 case which resulted in 12-year-old Paul Henry Gingerich being sent to an adult prison for 30 years, gives judges new sentencing options for children under 18 in the state’s criminal courts. It goes into effect July 1.

Gingerich’s case garnered international attention and sparked questions about whether children belong behind bars with grown-up offenders. Some noted that the United States stands nearly alone in the world in sending children to adult prisons.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty that’s been ratified by every country in the world except the United States and Somalia, spells out the basic human rights of children everywhere, noting in particular certain standards that should be applied to children in the criminal justice system:

(c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances;

(d) Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.

While the U.S. has not subscribed to the treaty and it is therefore not binding on the U.S. government, the Convention falls under the rubric of “customary international law,” defined by Article 38 (1) of the Statute of the International Court of Justice as “General Principles of Law recognized by civilized nations.”

While Gingerich remains in prison awaiting a critical court hearing, his case has already had a profound impact on how juveniles tried as adults may be punished.

The law signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in April gives judges more discretion in keeping young offenders out of the adult prison system and to put them instead into juvenile detention facilities where they can be rehabilitated while serving their sentence.

In Indiana, children as young as 10 can tried as adults. Gingerich was 12 when he was arrested in the shooting death of 49-year-old Phillip Danner of Cromwell, along with Danner’s 15-year-old stepson. The defense argued Gingerich had been bullied into the crime by the older teen.

While Gingerich’s case received substantial attention, it is not unique, with children tried and sentenced as adults in U.S. courts with troubling frequency.

A 2009 report, “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System,” found that more than half of U.S. states permit children age 12 and under to be treated as adults for criminal justice purposes. In 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, children as young as seven can be prosecuted and tried in adult court where they would be subject to harsh adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences and placement in adult prisons.

The report noted that the United States stands nearly alone in the world in its harsh treatment of young children:

Punishing young children violates international norms of human rights and juvenile justice, and yet the United States continues to lead the world in both policies and practices aimed at treating young children as adults. The way the United States punishes pre-adolescents who are waived to the adult criminal justice system is of special concern in light of the basic principles of international human rights law. From the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United States has disregarded international laws and norms providing that children should be treated differently than adults. A number of international laws offer support for increasing the minimum age of criminal responsibility and argue against long, mandatory minimum sentences for children.

Nearly all nations in the world follow both the spirit and letter of these international instruments. As a result, most countries—including those Western nations most similar to the United States—repudiate the practice of trying young children as adults and giving them long sentences. Our research has yielded no findings of any young children elsewhere in the world who are imprisoned for as long as some children in the United States. Moreover, the international community is seeing a trend whereby juvenile punishments are being rolled back, at the same time that certain states in America are increasing the possible array of punishments for children. Ultimately, while international norms do not control the criminal justice policy of the United States, they do signal the extent to which the U.S. is out of step with the global consensus that children should be treated as children.

The recent spate of laws, largely adopted in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama which struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children, are a welcome if overdue development. While the U.S. still has a long way to go in developing its human rights legal framework, the ongoing legal reforms are a step in the right direction, and of course, good news for the children serving time in adult prisons.

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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: Facebook: Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at]

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