Mental Health America has adopted a strong policy opposing sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders, calling such punishment “inconsistent with any of the purposes which ordinarily guide sentencing.”
The policy was adopted by Mental Health America’s Board of Directors at its September meeting. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether such sentences are cruel and unusual punishment this term.
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole. In 42 states and under federal law, children who are too young to legally buy cigarettes are being tried for crimes as adults and if convicted can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
There are currently at least 2,500 youthful offenders serving life without parole in U.S. prisons. Nationally, 59 percent of these individuals received their sentences for their first ever criminal conviction. Sixteen percent were between the ages of 13 and 15 when they committed their crimes, and 26% were sentenced under a felony murder charge where their offense did not involved carrying a weapon or pulling a trigger.
“Sentencing, including sentencing to imprisonment, has long been guided by four considerations: deterrence, retribution, incapacitation and rehabilitation. None of these purposes are served by sentencing juveniles to life without parole,” the policy position states.
“Victims of child abuse and neglect are over-represented among incarcerated juveniles, including those serving life without parole. Studies of this population also consistently demonstrate a high incidence of mental health and substance use disorders, serious brain injuries, and learning disabilities. In many instances, these juveniles have not received adequate diagnostic assessments or interventions.”
The policy also notes that such sentences violate international law and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world, except Somalia and the United States.
Mental Health America is also encouraging its more than 300 affiliates to work to repeal laws in those states which permit a sentence of life without parole. And it urges mental health advocates, professionals and other service providers work to ensure that juveniles are provided with appropriate services while incarcerated whose goal is to identify and ameliorate those problems which may have led to the crime and which need to be addressed before release will be safe and appropriate.