Back in 2004, when I first started working on the problem of children being sentenced to life without parole (LWOP), a lot of people told me “no.”
Lawyers in the juvenile death penalty case Roper v. Simmons told me not to work on juvenile lifers without parole (JLWOP) – they thought drawing attention to the human rights abuse of sentencing kids to life without parole would make it harder to convince the Supreme Court to end the human rights abuse of the juvenile death penalty.
The other groups that told me “no” were national and state-based statistical experts on prisoners in the United States.
Having lawyers tell me “no” was a problem I could work with. I certainly didn’t want to foul up the chance we had to overturn the juvenile death penalty. I figured I could wait until the Court made its decision. I had already started traveling around the country, meeting with young people serving life without parole sentences, and the research was clearly going to take some time.
The lawyers in the juvenile death penalty case agreed that I should quietly release a report on Colorado in February 2005 because I was the first to interview two dozen young people serving life without parole there, and the state was considering repealing the sentence. One month later the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the juvenile death penalty. Christopher Simmons was moved off death row and re-sentenced to life without parole. Six months later, I published the first national investigation of children sentenced to life without parole throughout the United States.
But that second group of people who had been telling me “no” was more of a roadblock. Although this is slowly changing, in 2004 most states would “lose” the fact that an offender was a child at the time of his or her crime once he was admitted to adult prison.
|“Human Rights Watch will continue to stand by you…
to ensure that no child is thrown away,
that no child’s very existence and humanity is denied”|
Consequently, publicly available statistics on prison populations often gave the impression that there were no inmates in adult prisons who were children at the time of offenses. In other words, these datasets indicated that the people I wanted to learn more about – people serving juvenile life without parole sentences – did not exist. I knew they did. I fought back. Eventually obtaining evidence that at least 2,500 children were serving life without parole in the United States in 2004 and at the time just a handful –soon to be zero – juveniles were serving the sentence elsewhere in the world.
To this day, I am angered and incredulous about the fact that public officials, to say nothing of the general public, have had very little access to information about the child offenders, who were tried and sentenced as adults in their states. How can we deny the existence of an entire category of people?
But I’m also amazed by the fact that this category was created in the first place, that lawmakers – with the stroke of a pen – have deliberately gone about erasing and denying an entire phase in human development – childhood. The point is not that children don’t commit crimes, and the argument is not that they should never be held accountable. But the bottom line is that children are different from adults and are able to grow and change. Children who commit crimes should be tried in courts that accommodate their needs, and should be held accountable in settings that punish them but that also help them to realize their human potential.
I’ll never forget what a young man serving LWOP in a supermax prison in Colorado told me. “You can’t just tack a label on a kid and throw him away in a box.” The label that was placed on him – that he was an adult at age 16 – and the box he was thrown in – a prison built on solitary confinement in which the only human contact he had had for several years came when a food tray passed through a slot in the door and a guard’s hand touched his own – were denials of his status as a child and of his humanity.
We don’t let teens under 18 vote. We don’t let them buy cigarettes or beer. Yet we have no problem treating them like adults when they are sent to jail or prison for crime. Dismantling that hubristic act of pretending a child is an adult continues to fuel my work at Human Rights Watch. In the past decade, we have worked on:
The experience of children tried as adults being held in solitary confinement to “protect” them from predators and violence behind bars is common. That so many incarcerated teens are treated this way is a tragedy and a gross violation of human rights. Solitary confinement is a common practice in U.S. jails and prisons, and one that has been the subject of increasing scrutiny in recent years due to its cruelty. An estimated 95,000 people under 18 were held in adult jails and prisons in the United States last year. Many are held in isolation for 22 to 24 hours a day, in some cases for weeks or months at a time. While there, they are often denied exercise, counseling, education and family visits. The practice raises serious human rights concerns. Our investigation on the solitary confinement of youth was published in 2012. And our work has not ended. The special rapporteur on torture has found that there should be a ban on placing juveniles in solitary confinement. And just last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union helped to secure widespread reforms in the state of New York on the use of solitary, including against children.
Florida has very harsh laws allowing for the direct prosecution of kids in adult court. Last year, we published a hard-hitting investigation highlighting how every year, the state of Florida arbitrarily and unfairly prosecutes hundreds of children as adults. Our investigation showed how, if convicted, Florida’s children suffer the lifelong consequences of an adult felony record for what are often low-level, nonviolent offenses. We have since led a coalition to change this policy giving prosecutors sweeping powers to prosecute kids as adults in Florida, and while our bill to reform direct file did not pass this year, our efforts to reform the juvenile life without parole sentencing in that state did succeed.
And then, here in California, under the extraordinary leadership of Elizabeth Calvin, and with the advice and collaboration of so many groups, both inside prison and outside prison, we have seen SB 9 and SB 260 passed into law – two groundbreaking reforms that have provided children serving life without parole and all people under the age of 18, who were prosecuted as adults, a chance at resentencing and specially tailored parole procedures.
All of this work wouldn’t be possible without the input and efforts of people on the inside, including the men in this room, who have shown through your actions that you also won’t take “no” for an answer – that you believe in your own personal power to shape your life in a way that is meaningful and constructive. Human Rights Watch will continue to stand by you, as will many other groups across the nation, as we work together to ensure that no child is thrown away, that no child’s very existence and humanity is denied, that as a society we can ensure justice for victims of crime and ensure that people accused and convicted of crime are treated fairly and with respect for who they are. That is what human rights law calls for and we should accept nothing less.