In December, the U.S. was the lone dissenter when the United Nations called for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children and young teenagers. The New York Times says the U.S. stands alone in the world in convicting young adolescents as adults and sentencing them to live out their lives in prison. There are 73 Americans serving such sentences for crimes they committed at 13 or 14.
In a report due out today, the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Al., is one of several human rights organizations that say states should be required to review sentences of juvenile offenders as the decades go by, looking for cases where parole might be warranted. Prosecutors and victims' rights groups say there are crimes so terrible and people so dangerous that only life sentences without the possibility of release are a fit moral and practical response. Experts in comparative law say there have been occasions when young murderers who would have served life terms in the U.S. were released from prison in Europe and went on to kill again. “I know of no systematic studies of comparative recidivism rates,” said James Whitman, who teaches comparative criminal law at Yale. “I believe there are recidivism problems in countries like Germany and France, since those are countries that ordinarily incarcerate only dangerous offenders, but at some point they let them out and bad things can happen.” The differences in the two approaches are rooted in politics and culture. European systems emphasize rehabilitation, while the American one stresses individual responsibility and punishment.