Life sentences for children are unconscionable

SHARE Life sentences for children are unconscionable
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Jacqueline Montanez was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole in 1999. In this picture taken in 2009, she is with a service dog.

In the United States, children under 18 may not vote, serve as a juror, buy alcohol or consent to most forms of medical treatment. Yet juveniles can be sentenced to die in prison for their actions.

No other country in the world sentences its children to life in prison without the possibility of release, a human rights violation under international law. Yet, in the United States, more than 2,500 people, convicted for offenses that occurred when they were children, currently serve life sentences without the possibility of parole.

A new Amnesty International report on the topic calls for abolishing the sentence of life without parole for juvenile offenders and presents three cases, including the only woman in Illinois serving such a sentence. Chicago native Jacqueline Montanez’s case exemplifies why juveniles should receive meaningful opportunities for review of their sentences and not life without parole.

A victim of child abuse by her stepfather, a gang leader, Jacqueline began abusing drugs and alcohol at age 9. Her stepfather involved her in the drug trade and groomed her to be his “little soldier.” After running away from home and joining a rival gang, she and two older women shot and killed two adult male members of her stepfather’s gang.

While juvenile courts are set up to consider factors including a defendant’s youth, home environment and amenability to rehabilitation, Jacqueline never had this opportunity. Because she was 15 at the time of the crime and charged with first-degree murder, she was automatically tried in adult criminal court. After her conviction, Jacqueline was also automatically sentenced to life without parole; the sentencing court had no discretion to consider her history, her age, the circumstances of the offense or her potential for rehabilitation.

Now 35 years old, Jacqueline expresses deep remorse for her actions and believes that she has grown into a very different person. She has obtained a high school equivalency diploma and has become a certified trainer of service dogs for disabled people. She grieves for her victims and the pain that their families have suffered.

In Illinois, 80 percent of children sentenced to life in prison without parole received mandatory sentences; about 82 percent are prisoners of color, according to the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children in a 2008 report.

International groups such as the U.N. Human Rights Committee, U.N. Committee against Torture and Amnesty International have called on the “land of the free” to change its actions. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child expressly prohibits the imposition of life imprisonment without the possibility of release for offenses committed by persons under 18. Today, 193 countries have ratified the Convention – all but the United States and Somalia.

In May 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court took a step forward with Graham v. Florida. The Court held that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a non-homicidal crime committed by an under-18-year-old is “cruel and unusual” punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Court reiterated that children possess diminished culpability, noting that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.” This is the very premise for the existence of the juvenile court system, which was founded in Illinois.

Of course, young people should be held accountable for their actions. But that accountability must be achieved in ways that reflect the offender’s young age, his or her capacity for change and a fair and compassionate justice system. To deny the possibility of release is to deny the possibility of restoration and is utterly incompatible with basic principles of juvenile justice.

Jacqueline’s petition for executive clemency will be submitted to Gov. Pat Quinn and the Prisoner Review Board in January. They now have an opportunity to take a first step toward moving Illinois into alignment with internationally recognized human rights standards, and – in so doing – to give Jacqueline Montanez a chance at a future.

Debra Erenberg is Midwest Director of Amnesty International in Chicago.

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