At least 2,225 juvenile offenders are serving life sentences without parole in the US, compared to a total of 12 elsewhere in the world, two leading human-rights groups said, as they urged the US government to abolish a practice that violates international law.
In the first study to investigate the US practice of jailing youth for life in adult prisons without the possibility of parole, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found the rate at which the sentence is imposed on children nationwide is about three times higher than it was 15 years ago.
The groups urged state and federal lawmakers to abolish the sentence, which is barred by international law and is currently practiced in only three other countries -- South Africa, Tanzania and Israel.
"We're asking for a recognition that these are child offenders and they should have access to parole hearings," said the report's author, Alison Parker, a senior researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"This would bring us in line with the rest of the world and make the US act in accordance with human-rights laws," Parker said, adding that such sentences are in violation of international human-rights laws and reject the well-established criminal-justice principle that children are less culpable than adults for crimes they commit.
The 157-page study released yesterday found that 42 states in the US currently have laws that allow youth offenders to receive life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. The report, entitled The Rest of their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States, found Virginia, Louisiana and Michigan were the most aggressive in imposing the sentence on juveniles.
Out of the 154 countries for which researchers were able to obtain data, 14 countries have laws allowing for the imposition of life sentences on youth offenders.
The sentence is explicitly prohibited by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child -- a treaty which only the US and Somalia have not ratified.
The groups are calling on US President George W. Bush and state governors to support the enactment of legislation that would abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles. They also want all youth offenders to be tried in juvenile court instead of having some charged in criminal court.
But altering US law to ban the practice is likely to meet with resistance.
In Virginia, ranked by the report as the state with the highest rate of sentencing youth to life terms without parole, the practice has strong public support, according to Kevin Hall, spokesman for Virginia Governor Mark Warner.
"We have Virginians who, through their elected representatives and their judges and juries, support this as a matter of public policy in Virginia," Hall said.
Virginia's governor supports the current state law that allows the sentence "for crimes so heinous that prosecutors present that as an option," Hall said.
Hall noted that current figures from the Virginia Department of Corrections show that of 105 inmates serving life terms for crimes committed before they were 18 years old, only 27 were not eligible for parole.
The study noted that Virginia was one of four states whose corrections departments did not provide statistics about youth offenders serving life terms.
Data gathered by Human Rights Watch researchers from other sources, including a federal prison database, found that Virginia had 48 juvenile offenders who are serving life without parole sentences.