As we observe the 25th anniversary of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Thursday, Pope Francis’ recent call for the elimination of life sentences and abolition of all criminal penalties for children is especially noteworthy.
The treaty, which was signed on Nov. 20, 1989, is rooted in our commonly shared values that as a society, we have a responsibility to protect and nurture our children and do all we can to help them succeed in life. It insists on a range of children’s rights, such as freedom of expression, health care and education and explicitly forbids sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of release. Only three countries have failed to ratify it: Somalia, South Sudan and the United States.
The United States is the only country in the world that sentences our children to die in prison — a most extreme example of our disregard for the human rights of children who come in conflict with the law. Sentences of life without parole have been imposed upon approximately 2,500 American children. This practice says to our children that no matter how much they change, they will always be defined by the worst thing they have ever done.
The pope’s call for reform is in line with the CRC and comes a few months after the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth sent him hundreds of letters written by people serving life in prison without parole for crimes committed when they were children. In these letters, they expressed remorse for their crimes and described the ways they had changed in prison and the sense of hopelessness that comes from being told they would die there with no opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a second chance. In his response, the pope said he was "deeply moved" by the prisoners' words and called for "mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation."
In October, he responded again. In a conversation with representatives from the International Association of Penal Law, Pope Francis called for an end to life sentences and all criminal penalties for children. "Life imprisonment is a death sentence," he said.
Pope Francis joined a robust coalition of more than 100 national and international organizations, including the National PTA, the American Correctional Association and the National Association of Counties, that have come together to call for an end to the practice of sentencing children to life without parole. This coalition includes child welfare organizations, faith-based organizations, corrections and law enforcement groups, mental health professionals, survivors of youth violence and political leaders from both sides of the aisle. The common thread among this diverse group is the belief that all of our children are better than the worst things they have done, and are deserving of basic dignity and human rights.
This is precisely the reason the CRC was established 25 years ago. It “proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance.” It also contends that “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
As states and the federal government grapple with recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that have dramatically limited the use of life sentences for children, policymakers would be well served to consider how we might hold our young people accountable for serious crimes, consistent with the CRC and our shared values, with a focus on their well-being as a “primary consideration.”
The debate would no longer be about the age at which it is most appropriate to give up on a child for life. Instead, our policymakers would examine what it means to truly prioritize the needs of children when holding them responsible for harm they have caused. We would seek the input of formerly incarcerated youth who are out and doing well, such as members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network, so they can inform our decisions. We would look to ways children can pay their debt to society while focusing on their need for rehabilitation, an opportunity for reintegration into society and the chance to be productive, contributing members of their communities.
The 25th anniversary of the CRC and the pope’s recent call for reform remind us that our nation has gone too far in imposing extreme criminal penalties on our children, and provide motivation to take a step back and meaningfully revisit our policies that recklessly disregard the unique needs and rights of our children. As a society, we can and we must do better by our children.
Jody Kent Lavy is director and national coordinator at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.