The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute argued before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that life imprisonment of children without parole, a punishment unique to the United States, should end.
There are approximately 2,500 juveniles serving life sentences with no possibility of parole in the United States today.
The Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, which exposes students to the practice of international law and human rights litigation, is currently co-counsel in a case pending before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights challenging life sentences without parole for children in Michigan.
In the case at hand, Henry Hill et al. vs. United States, the ACLU and Human Rights Institute are suing on behalf of 32 Michigan inmates sentenced to life without parole as children. The Inter-American Commission, which oversees the human rights obligations of member countries, heard arguments in Hill on Tuesday.
"The United States is alone in the world in its widespread use of life-without-parole sentences for children, and these sentences are a direct consequence of its practice of prosecuting children as adults," said Alba Morales, a human rights researcher at the international rights group Human Rights Watch. "Henry Hill and his fellow petitioners were each sentenced to life in prison without parole after Michigan allowed prosecutors to charge them as adults, with no consideration of their status as children."
While every US state permits children to be tried as adults, Michigan is among numerous states that has been making it easier to try juveniles as adults, with children as young as 13 eligible for adult court proceedings.
Among the cases being raised before the Commission is that of Juwan Wickware, who was 16 when he participated in an armed robbery that resulted in the death of a Flint pizza delivery man. Wickware and another friend shot at the man, Wickware with a .22-caliber rifle, his friend with a .40-caliber pistol. Although it was the .40-caliber round that struck and killed the man, under Michigan law a felony murder conviction can result even if the defendant is not directly responsible for a person's death. Wickware, who had no prior convictions, was found guilty and sentenced to life behind bars with no parole.
Although the US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that life sentences without parole for children violate the Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment," the Court's ruling granted judges discretion in imposing sentences.
"You need to have sentences that are intended to rehabilitate a child," ACLU attorney Deborah LaBelle told the Huffington Post. "You need to incarcerate them for the least amount of time to achieve that goal."
But supporters of lifetime imprisonment of children without parole asserted the issue is not rehabilitation, but rather punishment and retribution.
"As a moral matter, it is okay for the government to say, 'Even if there is a possibility that someone will rehabilitate themselves, if a person commits a sufficiently egregious crime, then they just deserve a very severe sentence,'" John Neiman, a former Alabama solicitor-general, told NPR.
LaBelle countered that in addition to being cruel and unusual punishment, the practice of sentencing children to die in prison is detrimental to US moral standing.
"It undermines the country's human rights record and position in the world," LaBelle told the Huffington Post. "It deprives them of moral authority when they're trying to throw children in prison until they die."
In addition to adultification, the United States, along with Somalia and South Sudan, two highly dysfunctional nations, are the only countries that have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which promotes and protects children's rights around the world. Somalia and South Sudan have both committed to ratifying this important treaty, leaving the US as the only nation which rejects it.
There is a widespread disdain for international law and norms among many Americans, who view their nation as exempt from binding legal obligations. This view is often accompanied by a belief in "American exceptionalism," the notion that the United States is qualitatively different -- most believers say superior -- to other nations. But in this case, the only thing exceptional about America is that it's the only nation on earth to sentence children to die in prison, with no chance of ever tasting freedom.