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Is life without parole for juveniles just or unjust?

Chaplains very rarely get involved with criminal sentencing matters. However, the American Correctional Chaplains Association recently participated in a faith communities' amicus brief opposing a life without parole (LWOP) sentence for a juvenile.

In 2013, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) signed a statement of principles written by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CSFY) advocating age-appropriate alternatives to LWOP sentences for juveniles,' it noted that these sentences forestall the possibility that people can change. "Life sentences without parole eliminate the opportunity for rehabilitation or second chances," stated Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. (2.)

The statement of principles articulates CFSY's position on the issue of LWOP sentences for juveniles, and the USCCB is hardly alone among faith organizations in opposing them. In fact, faith organizations from across the theological spectrum are among the more than 100 national organizations that have endorsed the CSFY statement, which also includes the American Correctional Association, the American Probation and Parole Association, the Association of Women Executives in Corrections and others as signatories. (3.) These organizations share the belief that an individual is more than his or her worst act.

Throughout the U.S., approximately 2,500 individuals have been sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed when they were younger than 18. Contrarily, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly during the last decade that juveniles are "constitutionally different" from adults, and therefore should not be subject to the nation's harshest punishments. (4.) In part, the Supreme Court affirmed adolescent development research documenting that teens do not possess the same capacity as adults to consider the long-term consequences of their actions, have lower levels of impulse control and are more easily influenced by peers and adults. (5) That research also demonstrates that juveniles possess a unique capacity for change and rehabilitation. Thus, a growing number of policymakers and opinion leaders are calling for reform of sentencing practices.

Many of these LWOP sentences were mandatory, which left judges with no discretion to impose lesser penalties. The Supreme Court specifically ruled in June 2012 that such automatic sentences are unconstitutional when imposed upon children. (6.) Subsequently, states throughout the country have been responding to this ruling in a variety of ways. While some states are resisting the types of reforms mandated by the Supreme Court, there is a growing momentum for change. Through a combination of legislative and court actions, several states, including Delaware, Massachusetts, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming, have eliminated LWOP sentences for juveniles. States such as California. Florida and Washington have passed new laws that allow opportunities for review and potential resentencing for most people who are convicted of serious crimes as juveniles and have served several years in prison.

Theological Perspectives

In addition to sociological and political reasons for opposition to these sentences, theological justifications to support reform are found in the teachings of most faith traditions. Furthermore, based on what sacred texts deem to be more Godly and humane forms of justice, many prominent religious leaders argue that these sentences are simply unjust to begin with. Jewish biblical law precludes any sanction of incarceration, wherefore the prophet Isaiah uses the metaphor of physical confinement for spiritual blindness: "I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in dark-ness." (7.) In recent times, one of Judaism's foremost rabbinic scholars asserted:
  The Torah enumerates and defines many forms of punishment for sinners
  and convicted offenders, from simple fines to flogging and even
  capital punishment. Yet nowhere does it suggest incarceration as a
  form of punishment. This is simply because the purpose of existence
  is to establish a Godly abode in this world, which is accomplished by
  utilizing our individual, divinely endowed strengths and talents in
  the service of God. With all other forms of punishment, the
  individual suffers the penalty, is cleansed of his [or her] sin, and
  is then restored to freedom where he [or she] is expected to resume a
  productive life in the making of a more Godly world. As a prisoner
  ... one is denied the freedom to fulfill his divinely ordained
  mission, and hence, his reason for living ... [To] allow one to live
  and yet to deprive him of living, is inhumane. (8)

The theme continues in the Christian biblical New Testament, where the gospel of Matthew uses metaphoric language to articulate the need to focus on the lost individual to bring him or her back into community: "What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the 99 on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?"9 According to this parable, just as a shepherd rejoices when one of his flock is returned, so does God rejoice when a person is returned to community. When it comes to upholding divinely-inspired justice, Islam's Holy Qur'an subsequently cautions believers to stand firm even in the face of opposition: "Believers, be steadfast for the cause of Allah and just in bearing witness. Let not a group's hostility make you deviate from justice. Be just for it is closer to piety.") Similarly, the texts and teachings of many other religions also evidence--primarily through relating redemptive experiences--that positive change is possible for most everyone, and they assert that this must be considered when dispensing various forms of justice. The practice of sentencing juveniles to prison without the possibility of parole, however, particularly fails to recognize such principles.

The U.S. is the only country in the world that assigns LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders, and it disproportionately impacts poor youths and minority youths. In fact, African American youths are sentenced to LWOP at 10 times the rate for white youths."

This country can do better. Juveniles must be held accountable in age-appropriate ways that focus on their capacity for rehabilitation and reintegration into society. This is consistent with religious beliefs, makes sense for the communities and is necessary to make the world a better and safer place.

Editor's Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and not necessarily the American Correctional Association.


(1.) The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. 2014. Statement of principles. Retrieved from

(2.) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 2013. Bishops' committee joins call to end life sentences without parole for children. Retrieved from

(3.) The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. 2014. Official supporters. Retrieved from

(4.) The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. 2014. U.S. Supreme Court. Retrieved from

(5.) American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2011. The teen brain: Behavior, problem solving and decision making. Retrieved from

(6.) The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. 2014. Miller v. Alabama. Retrieved from

(7.) Bible, English Standard Version. 2001. Isaiah 42. Retrieved from

(8.) Schneerson, M.M. 1996. Selected Jewish references on prisoners and prisons. Retrieved from

(9.) Bible, English Standard Version. 2001. Matthew 18:12. Retrieved from

(10.) Qur'an. 2011. Chapter 5: The table spread with food. Retrieved from

(11.) Human Rights Watch. 2008. Submission to the committee on racial discrimination. Retrieved from
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Title Annotation:ACCA News
Author:Ross, James D., II; Friedman, Gary
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2014
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