American exceptionalism is supposed to be a good thing. But sometimes, the U.S. stands apart from the crowd for all the wrong reasons.
That's what happened this week, when a United Nations report on children deprived of their liberties singled out the U.S. as being the only nation in the world that imprisons children for life without the possibility of parole.
"The vast majority of States have taken note of the international human rights requirements regarding life imprisonment of children without the possibility of release," the report, issued by the UN Anti-Torture Initiative, reads. "Significantly, the United States of America is the only State in the world that still sentences children to life imprisonment without the opportunity for parole for the crime of homicide."
That's right. If there's one thing the North Koreas and the Sudans of the world can hold against us, it's the fact that we currently house about 2,500 inmates serving life behind bars with no chance of parole for crimes they committed when they were children.
"Seventy-three children sentenced to life without parole were 13 or 14 years old at the time of their offense," adds a recent report on the issue by The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice system advocacy group.
As seen below, about two-thirds of the inmates that meet this criteria come from only five states.
The practice became widespread during the early and mid-90s, when the idea that some youths were "superpredators" who were unable to be reformed took hold across the country. That theory has since been debunked.
“We’re still living with those laws, enacted at that time, and it happens to a degree in the U.S. that doesn't happen anywhere else in the world,” Steven Watts, the senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union human rights program, told Al-Jazeera.
Some states have stepped up to the changing landscape. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have banned the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole, with West Virginia and Hawaii doing so last year.
All things considered, things have gotten better. A 2009 Supreme Court case declared it unconstitutional for a minor to be sentenced to life without parole for a crime that was not a homicide. Prior to that, teens were getting it for crimes like carjacking and burglaries.
A 2012 Supreme Court decision ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences issued to minors are "cruel and unusual," and so a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
From Justice Elena Kagan's majority opinion:
Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.
It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth — for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys.
It's worth underlining the fact that this decision only forbade states from issuing mandatory life without parole sentences to minors based on three-strike rules and other harsh sentences for crimes. The decision still allows state judges to issue the sentences, with the caveat that they must consider the particulars of the situation instead of mandatory sentencing guidelines.
Some states, including those shown in the image above, continue the practice.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.