Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP)
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
The Human Rights Clinic is co-counsel in a case currently pending before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights challenging life without parole sentences for juveniles in the state of Michigan.
There are over 300 juvenile offenders who are serving life without parole sentences in Michigan (within the United States, approximately 2,500 juveniles are serving the sentence). Under applicable Michigan law, a child as young as fourteen can be charged, tried, sentenced and incarcerated in an adult prison for life without any evaluation or assessment of how age or individual circumstances may affect culpability, rehabilitative capacity, cognitive ability or public safety concerns. The case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) challenges these laws as a violation of the right of the child to special protection, the right to be free from cruel inhuman or unusual punishment and to humane treatment and due process guarantees. It also challenges Petitioners’ conditions of detention as violations of their right to education and right to rehabilitation. The Clinic, along with co-counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan, has drafted briefs and participated in a merits hearing before the IACHR. Watch the March 2014 Inter-American Commission hearing on JLWOP here. A decision in the case is forthcoming.
IAHCR Petition Annexes (2006) →
IAHCR Petition Supplemental Brief (2008) →
IACHR Merits Petition (2012)
Amicus briefs were submitted by the following organizations:
The NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund
Human Rights Watch
The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
University of San Francisco & Shepard Mullin
Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute & Amnesty International
The Human Rights Institute and the Human Rights Clinic have supported efforts to challenge juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) in domestic courts as well. Together with other human rights organizations, we submitted briefs in the cases Graham v. Florida and Miller v. Alabama. These briefs describe the relevance of international human rights law to the Court’s analysis of juvenile sentencing practices and present the global framework on juvenile life without parole, including the applicable norms, including treaty standards as well as comparative practices, which indicate a global consensus against the use of these sentences.
In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down the use of JLWOP sentences for youth convicted for their role in non-homicide crimes as “cruel and unusual” punishment in the Graham case. Building on historical practice, the Court noted the value of “the judgment of the world’s nations,” citing foreign laws and international practice and opinion that prohibit life without parole for juveniles as evidence that “demonstrates that the Court’s rationale has respected reasoning to support it.” The Court in Graham further recognized that the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by every country except Somalia and the United States, explicitly prohibits juvenile LWOP Sentences and that the CRC offers evidence of international opinion. In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court struck down laws authorizing mandatory life without parole sentences for children convicted of homicide offenses. The Court did not extend Graham’s categorical ban for non-homicide offenses to homicide offenses. As a result, children convicted of homicide crimes continue to face the possibility of being subjected to life without parole sentences.
Amicus Brief in Graham v. Florida (2008)
Amicus Brief in Miller v. Alabama (2012)
Other Domestic Advocacy
In the fall 2007 students helped draft sections of an amicus brief to go to the Supreme Court of South Carolina in the Pittman case where a boy was sentenced to 30 years in prison without possibility of parole for a crime committed when he was 12 years old. The Clinic’s contribution to this brief followed comprehensive research on comparative practices in juvenile sentencing and the requirements and aspirations of international law in this area. Students also submitted a letter to California state politicians and officials in support of an amendment to that state’s JLWOP law.
In June 2014, the Human Rights Institute published a case study on juvenile life without parole in the U.S. that demonstrates the value of using the human rights framework to advance domestic social justice advocacy efforts.
Inter-American Court on Human Rights
In September of 2012, the Clinic submitted an amicus brief to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in the case César Alberto Mendoza et al. (Juveniles Sentenced to Life Time Imprisonment) vs. Argentina, involving Argentina's use of sentencias perpetuas--sentences under which juveniles serve at least 20 years in prison before they are eligible for parole. The brief calls for the elimination of all forms of life sentences based on the American Declaration, the American Convention and international and comparative human rights standards. The brief contributes relevant rules and guidelines from the International and European legal systems and urges the Court to develop clear standards providing that all juvenile sentences include regular and realistic opportunities for review and release.