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13 and 14 Year-Old Children Should Not Be Condemned To Adult Prisons With No Opportunity For Parole Or Release

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The United States Supreme Court held recently that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to be executed 1 . However, many states permit children as young as thirteen or fourteen to be sentenced to life imprisonment with no opportunity to for parole. Young children are being sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in adult prisons even in non-homicide cases. Children in adult prisons are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those in juvenile facilities and they are at heightened risk of physical abuse 2 . Nonetheless, children continue to be sentenced to life without parole with very little review or scrutiny.

The Equal Justice Initiative has documented over 70 cases where 13 and 14-year olds have been condemned to life with no opportunity for parole 3 . When EJI began its work, many of these kids lacked legal representation and in most cases, the propriety and constitutionality of their sentences has never been reviewed. EJI now represents dozens of these people and has launched a litigation campaign to challenge life without parole sentences imposed on young teens. EJI hopes that its efforts along with increased public awareness and advocacy will lead to reform and that such harsh sentences will be replaced by policies that reflect a more informed perspective and hope for young children.


Neurological, psychological and sociological studies all confirm that young teens, especially 13 and 14-year olds, lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. They are more vulnerable to negative influences and peer pressure and they are unable to protect themselves from dysfunctional and dangerous home environments. Brain development in younger adolescents lags behind that of older teens; thus younger teens are less able to make responsible decisions than older teens 4 .

In a myriad of ways, both federal and state laws seek to protect younger juveniles from exploitation and from their limited self-control, responsibility and decision-making capabilities. Thirteen and fourteen year-olds are deemed too immature and irresponsible to drive, vote, marry without parental consent, serve on juries, drink alcohol or gamble. As are all children under the age of sixteen, thirteen and fourteen year olds are required to attend school and limited in the number of hours they can work in after-school jobs.

The restrictions placed on juveniles are eased as they mature in recognition of the fact that while the character of a juvenile is not as formed as that of an adult, juveniles more so than adults have the potential to change and develop positive character traits. A sentence of life without parole denies these children, among other things, the opportunity to become rehabilitated and renter society. As one court has recognized, such a harsh sentence is a

denial of hope; it means that good behavior and character improvement are immaterial; it means that whatever the future might hold in store for the mind and spirit of [the 13-year-old defendant], he will remain in prison for the rest of his days 5 .


Most children who have been sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed at thirteen or fourteen come from violent and what are classified as dysfunctional backgrounds. Their childhoods include horrific instances of neglect, abandonment, extreme poverty, violence, physical and/or sexual abuse. Many parents are sex workers, drug addicts, alcoholics and crack dealers.

Children sentenced to life without parole also have in common the disturbing failure of police, family courts, child protection agencies, foster systems and health care providers. Their crimes occur in the midst of crisis, often as a consequence of desperate, misguided attempts to protect themselves. Research has shown that more so than 'normal teenagers,' juveniles subjected to trauma, abuse, and neglect suffer from cognitive underdevelopment, lack of maturity, decreased ability to restrain impulses and susceptibility to outside influences 6 . Therefore a 13-year old who has endured a severely dysfunctional family life, violence and abuse, and who has no resources to flee or seek help cannot be presumed to function at standard levels for adolescents.

Rather than providing such children with treatment or a safe haven, the adult criminal justice system often subjects them to mandatory sentencing that prevents judges from considering a child's age or life history.

EJI's Progress Toward Ending Life Without Parole For 13 & 14-Year-Olds

The Equal Justice InitiativeThe Equal Justice Initiative has identified 73 children sentenced at thirteen or fourteen to life without parole. About half of these children are African American and seventy percent are children of color 7 . EJI is now fighting to protect younger teens from being sentenced to spend the rest of their lives locked away in adult prisons.

EJI believes that life without parole sentences for 13 and 14-year olds are cruel and unusual and violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution. These sentences also violate international law. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every country except the United States and Somalia, forbids this practice 8 and 132 countries have rejected the sentence altogether 9 . The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Untied States became a party in 1992, prohibits life without parole sentencing for juveniles 10 . Further the United Nations General Assembly passed by a 185-1 vote (the United States voted against) a resolution calling upon all nations to abolish as soon as possible the death penalty and life imprisonment without the possibility of release for those under 18 at the time of the offense 11 .

EJI is slowly making progress. In 2008, EJI won relief for Philip Shaw, who at fourteen, was sentenced to life without parole. His 21-year-old co-defendant received a lesser sentence and had already been released from prison. Philip spent fourteen years in an adult prison before EJI won his freedom 12 .

Antonio NunezIn April 2009, a California appeals court declared the life without parole sentence of EJI's client, Antonio Nunez, to be cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the California State Constitution and the United States Constitution 13 . At fourteen Antonio was sentenced to life without parole in an alleged kidnapping where no one was injured. A new sentencing hearing was ordered.

Joe SullivanThis fall, the United States Supreme Court will hear the case of another EJI client, Joe Sullivan, who was sentenced to life without parole in a non-homicide case 14 . Joe is one of only two people in the nation known to be sentenced to life without parole for a non-homicide offense. Joe is mentally disabled. At trial, Joe was represented by an attorney who has since been suspended from the practice of law. Joe has already spent almost 20 years in prison. He has developed serious medical problems that require him to use a wheel chair.


Abuse, neglect, domestic and community violence, and poverty plague many children across America. These children need effective intervention to help them overcome the emotional, social and psychological challenges of adolescence. Without such help, some children may eventually engage in destructive and violent behavior. Sadly, many States have ignored the crisis and dysfunction that brings children into conflict with the law and instead, have subjected them to further victimization and abuse within the adult criminal justice system. EJI's work reveals the misguided consequences of surrendering young children to this system and sentencing them to life without any possibility for parole.

Such harsh sentences are cruel and incompatible with fundamental standards of decency. Life imprisonment without parole for young children should be abolished. States that impose these sentences on adolescents should immediately eliminate the practice and provide opportunities for parole to people who have been sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed at thirteen or fourteen. Recent legal developments, international law and medical insights on child development provide powerful support for ending life without parole sentences for young children. The plight of the condemned children in EJI's report is not disconnected from the fate of all children, who frequently need correction, guidance, and direction, but always need hope.

Here's what you can do to help:


  • Contact EJI or visit our website ( to obtain copies of Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14- Year-Old Children to Die in Prison or to inquire about hosting a screening of EJI's video about the subject.


  • Petition the United States to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids the practice of sentencing 13 and 14-year-olds to life without the possibility.
  • Urge state and national government officials to end life without parole for young teens.
  • Support organizations fighting to reform our criminal justice system so that young children will not be condemned to adult prison without the opportunity to reenter society.
  • Intervene in the life of a child in need.


  1. Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 570 (2005).
  2. 42 U.S.C.A. 15601 (2003) (congressional findings in support of Prison Rape Elimination Act.
  3. Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison (2008), available at
  4. See e.g., B. Luna, The Maturation of Cognitive Control and the Adolescent Brain, in From Attention to Goal Directed Behavior 249, (F. Aboitiz & D. Cosmelli eds. 2009); Laurence Steinberg, A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking, 28 Dev. Rev. 78 (2008), Laurence Steinberg, Risk-Taking in Adolescence: New Perspectives from Brain and Behavioral Science, 16 Current Dir. Psychol. Sci. 55 (2007); Jay N. Giedd, Structural magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Adolescent Brain, 1021 Annals N.Y. Acad. Sci. 77, 77-83 (2004) ; Nitin Gotay et al., Dynamic Mapping of Human Cortical Development During Childhood Through Early Adulthood, 101 Proceedings Nat'l Acad. Sci. 8174 (2004); Elizabeth Cauffman & Laurence Steinberg, (Im)maturity of Judgment in Adolescence: Why Adolescents May Be Less Culpable Than Adults, 18 Behav. Sci. & Law 741 (2000); L.P. Spear, the Adolescent Brain and Age-Related Behavioral Manifestations, 24 Neuroscience & Biobehav. Revs. 417 (2000).
  5. Naovarath v. Nevada, 779 P.2d 944, 948-49 (Nev. 1989).
  6. Nancy Kaser-Boyd, Ph.D., Post Traumatic Stress Disorders in Children and Adults: The Legal Relevance, 20 W. St. U. L. Rev. 319 (1993).
  7. Equal Justice Initiative, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison 20-21 (2008), available at
  8. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, art. 37, Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3, 28 I.L.M. 1448, 1468-70 (entered into force Sept. 2, 1990).
  9. Connie de la Vega & Michelle Leighton, Special Report on Human Rights Violations in Sentencing Children to Die in Prison: State Practice of Imposing Life Without Possibility of Parole 5 (2007).
  10. Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee on the United States of America, 34, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/USA/CO/3/Rev.1 (Dec. 18, 2006) (Determining that life without parole sentencing for children does not comply with articles 7 or 24(1) of the ICCPR).
  11. G.A. Res. 61/146, 319a), U.N. Doc. A/Res/61/146 (Jan. 23, 2007)
  12. Phillip Shaw Is Released After EJI Wins Relief From Death In Prison Sentence (Nov. 18, 2008), available at
  13. California Appeal Court Declares Life Without Parole Sentence Unconstitutional for 14-Year-Old Antonio Nunez (April 30, 2009), available at
  14. Information about Mr. Sullivan's case, including the Supreme Court briefs is available at
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