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Should Life mean Life for Young Offenders?

Our Criminal Defence team at Swain and Co solicitors are committed to keeping up to date with criminal cases worldwide which may change the face of the criminal justice system and establish trends in relation to youth justice.

Amy Groves says; “As criminal defence specialists it is always interesting to look at rulings in other countries in order to see differences and draw parallels with cases in the UK”.

 The Law in the United States

  • It was only in 2005 that the US Supreme Court ruled against minors being sentenced to the death penalty.

The Court stated that “It is cruel and unusual to deprive a minor of his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity”.

  • Until 2010 it was legal in the US for offenders under the age of 18 to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a variety of offences.

Following a ruling by the Supreme Court, that sentence is currently only available for young offenders who are convicted of murder. This time the Court stated that “it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult”.

Some would argue that this could apply to children accused of murder as well as any other crime.

 The Cases

  • In Alabama, Evan Miller, then aged 14 along with a friend, stole a baseball card collection and $300 from a neighbour. They attacked the man with a baseball bat and then set fire to his home. The man was killed in the fire.
  • In Arkansas, Kuntrell Jackson, also aged 14 at the time, attempted to rob a video store along with two friends. When a member of staff threatened to call the police, one of his friends shot the woman and killed her.

Both Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson received mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without parole.

The states of Alabama and Arkansas asked the Supreme Court for permission to continue to impose this sentence on minors convicted of murder.

On 27th March 2012, Juvenile Justice Reformer; Bryan Stevenson challenged the sentences on behalf of his clients (both Miller and Jackson) and is asking the Supreme Court to make the sentence of life without parole for under 18 year olds unlawful altogether.

  • More recently, in Sarasota, 17 year old Shawn Tyson has received this sentence for murdering two British tourists by shooting them dead after trying to rob them when they mistakenly wandered off the beaten track on a night out.

 The Debate

Amnesty International has called for the United States to stop this practice completely.

The US and Somalia are the only two countries in the world not to have a ratified United Nations convention that bans life in jail for under 18’s without parole.

They state that offenders as young as 11 years old have received this sentence.

In actual fact since 1971, only 79 juveniles aged 13 or 14 have received this sentence and 32 states in America have never passed this sentence to anyone under the age of 14.

Amnesty International claims that such sentences do not take into consideration the higher potential for rehabilitation that young offenders have over adults.

This argument is supported by medical research which claims that judgement and understanding has not been fully formed in the brains of young offenders and they should therefore not be punished in the same way as adults.

 In the UK

A similar debate has been ongoing in the UK for many years. Although our courts do not have the same sentence available, they are able to impose life sentences on young offenders with life licences upon release.

This is known as Detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure and falls under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000.

  •  Sentences of this kind were imposed by Mr Justice Treacy on Gary Dobson and David Norris who were convicted of killing teenager Stephen Lawrence at The Old Bailey in January of this year. Judge Treacy stated that his ‘hands were tied’ in relation to the minimum terms of imprisonment which he could impose as the defendants were under the age of 18 at the time the offence was committed.
  •  These sentences were also passed by Mr Justice Morland in relation to Robert Thompson and Jon Venables who murdered two year old James Bulger in 1993 when they were both aged just 10 years old. They each served just 8 years in custody which caused a national outrage due to the high profile and shocking nature of the crime.

It is cases like these which are used in the UK to argue against raising the age of criminal responsibility from the age of 10 years up to 12 in line with the rest of Europe.

Amy Groves says “The treatment of young offenders in the criminal justice system is a topic which will continue to be discussed world wide. The difficulty is that no two cases are the same and no two offenders are the same. There are always going to be mitigating and aggravating factors which may influence the outcome.”

The judgement in relation to the Alabama and Arkansas cases is due by the end of June this year. In the meantime, the debate goes on.

Swain and Co offer a 24/7 service and representation at the police station is free. We represent clients in the Magistrates and Crown courts in Portsmouth, Chichester and Southampton and beyond.

Amy and her colleagues in the Criminal Defence team can be contacted on 02392 483322 or 0800 0351999, or you can write to them at 3-5 South Street, Havant, PO9 1BU.

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