NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 18, 2007

Currently, there are 73 Americans serving life sentences for crimes they committed when they were 13 or 14 years old, a number far higher than in Europe, says the New York Times. 

The differences in the two approaches, legal experts say, are rooted in politics and culture:

  • The European systems emphasize rehabilitation, while the American one stresses individual responsibility and punishment.
  • Corrections professionals and criminologists here and abroad tend to agree that violent crime is usually a young person's activity, suggesting that eventual parole could be considered in most cases.
  • But the American legal system is more responsive to concerns about crime and attitudes about punishment, while justice systems abroad tend to be administered by civil servants rather than legislators, prosecutors and judges.

In defending American policy, the State Department says that sentencing is usually a matter of state law.  Plus, many of the juvenile offenders serving life-without-parole terms "were hardened criminals who had committed gravely serious crimes," the department added.

But human rights groups have disputed that.  According to a 2005 report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International:

  • Some 59 percent of the more than 2,200 prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed at 17 or younger had never been convicted of a previous crime.
  • And 26 percent were in for felony murder, meaning they participated in a crime that led to a murder but did not themselves kill anyone.

A danger remains, nonetheless.  "I know of no systematic studies of comparative recidivism rates," said James Q. Whitman, a comparative criminal law professor 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."

Source: Adam Liptak, "Lifers as Teenagers, Now Seeking Second Chance," New York Times, October 17, 2007.

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