The national American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan today filed a petition urging the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to rule that sentencing children to mandatory life without the possibility of parole violates the Declaration of the Rights of Man and universal human rights principles.
"The petitioners were children when they were sentenced to adult prisons for the rest of their lives without any opportunity for parole. Every child deserves the opportunity for a second chance," said Deborah LaBelle, the director of the ACLU of Michigan's Juvenile Life Without Parole initiative. "Ignoring the reality of the youthful status of these children, the possibility of rehabilitation and denying judges and juries any discretion results in an unforgiving sentence that violates basic fairness and human rights principles."
The ACLU filed the petition on behalf of 32 juveniles who were tried as adults and given mandatory life sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18 without any consideration of their status as children. In Michigan and many other states, juveniles can be tried in adult courts and sentenced to life without any chance of parole regardless of their age or the circumstances of their offense.
The imposition of life without parole on minor children is explicitly prohibited by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty which has been signed and ratified by every country in the world save the United States and Somalia. Despite this, Michigan and 40 other states permit these sentences to be imposed on juveniles. Michigan is one of 13 states that have no age limit for life sentences without possibility of parole, thereby directly violating this long established universal standard, according to the ACLU.
"The United States is out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to treatment of children," said Steven Watt, a human rights advisor with the ACLU Human Rights Working Group. "By not allowing people incarcerated as children to ask a court to reconsider their sentences, the United States and Michigan are violating basic human rights norms."
The ACLU petition seeks the opportunity for the petitioners to apply for parole, the reform of U.S. laws that allow juveniles to be tried as adults and a declaration from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the United States generally and Michigan specifically are in violation of the petitioners rights.
Established by the United States and Latin American countries in 1959 under the auspices of the Organization of American States ("OAS"), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which sits in Washington D.C., is expressly authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations by members of the OAS. The Commission is also authorized to conduct on-site visits to observe the general human rights situations in all 35 member states of the OAS and to investigate specific allegations of violations of Inter-American human rights treaties and other instruments. Its overall responsibility is to promote the observance and the defense of human rights in the Americas.
The ACLU's new Human Rights Working Group is dedicated to holding the U.S. government accountable to universally recognized human rights principles. The Human Rights Working Group is charged with incorporating international human rights strategies into ACLU advocacy on issues relating to national security, immigrants' rights, women's rights and racial justice.
The petition is brought by LaBelle and Kary Moss of the ACLU of Michigan, and Watt and Ann Beeson of the ACLU Human Rights Working Group with the cooperation of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School.