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Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison: Global Law and Practice

62 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2008 Last revised: 22 Oct 2008

Constance de la Vega

University of San Francisco School of Law

Michelle T. Leighton

American University of Central Asia

Date Written: October 2, 2008


This article focuses on the sentencing of child offenders (those convicted of crimes when younger than eighteen years of age) to a term of life imprisonment without the possibility of release or parole ("LWOP"). It argues that the LWOP sentence condemns a child to die in prison, is cruel and ineffective as a punishment, has no deterrent value, contradicts our modern understanding that children have enormous potential for growth and maturity in passing from youth to adulthood, prevents society from ever reconsidering a child's sentence, and denies the widely held expert view that children are amenable to rehabilitation and redemption.

The article asserts that the United States is the world's only remaining practitioner of LWOP sentencing of juveniles, and that in the United State the sentence is applied disproportionately among youth of color. The article analyzes international human rights standards and international law to demonstrate that imposing sentences of LWOP for child offenders is a violation of law. The article identifies several juvenile justice and rehabilitation models of other countries and United States states that can serve as alternatives to harsh and inappropriate sentencing for children, and it makes recommendations to governments and policy-makers for remedying violations of international human rights standards, and for improving the opportunities for juvenile rehabilitation.

The authors conclude by recommending that: countries should continue to denounce as a violation of international law the practice of sentencing juveniles to LWOP, to condemn the practice among the remaining governments which allow such sentencing, and to call upon those where the law may be ambiguous to institute legal reforms confirming the prohibition of such sentencing. The authors further recommend that the United States should abolish the juvenile LWOP sentence under federal law and undertake efforts to bring the United States into compliance with its international obligations to prohibit this sentencing.

Keywords: life imprisonment without the possibility of release or parole, LWOP, juvenile justice, child offenders, juvenile rehabilitation, human rights, customary international law, sentencing, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, United

Suggested Citation

de la Vega, Constance and Leighton, Michelle T., Sentencing Our Children to Die in Prison: Global Law and Practice (October 2, 2008). University of San Francisco Law Review, Vol. 42, No. 4, 2008; Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper No. 2008-01. Available at SSRN:

Constance De la Vega (Contact Author)

University of San Francisco School of Law ( email )

2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
United States

Michelle Leighton

American University of Central Asia ( email )

205 Abdymomunov Street
Bishkek, 720040

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