USA: Too young to vote, old enough to be sentenced to die in prison

Jacqueline Montanez knows where she’s going to die.The 36-year-old is the only woman in the state of Illinois serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a crime she committed when she was a child.In 1993, she was convicted, along with two other co-defendants, of murdering two rival gang members. The crimes took place shortly before her 16th birthday in May 1992.Even though she was only 15, she was tried in an adult court — instead of a juvenile one where factors such as her young age, troubled home environment or amenability to rehabilitation would have been considered. At the time of the crime, she was a teenager emerging from a childhood of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. She was raised by her step-father, a feared and brutal gang “enforcer,” who groomed Jacqueline to be his “little soldier.” From the age of nine, she started abusing drugs and alcohol and ultimately joined a street gang which was the rival to her abusive stepfather’s. She was hospitalised for overdoses and mental health crises on several occasions. Now in an adult prison, after spending more than half her life behind bars, she has grown into a very different person. She has obtained a high school equivalency diploma, completed almost all available education and vocational programmes, and become a certified trainer of service dogs for disabled people.  She tutors and mentors younger inmates and is very active in the chaplaincy programs offered at her prison. “I did what they said I did, [but] I’m not who they say I am,” Jacqueline Montanez said.  “Not a day goes by that I don’t wish it were me [who was dead]. They were human, they were somebody’s father, they were somebody’s child.” “Sentencing children to die in prison contradicts fundamental human rights principles recognizing the immaturity of children and their special capacity for growth and change,” said Rob Freer, USA Researcher at Amnesty International. “The USA should join the rest of the world in ending this sentence against children.”Part of a patternAcross the USA, approximately 2,500 men and women are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were under 18 years of age.As far as Amnesty International is aware, no other country in the world imposes this sentence on children.By imprisoning children for life without the possibility of release, the USA is violating international law. This includes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which the USA has signed, thereby binding itself not to defeat its object and purpose pending its ratification decision. The Obama administration said in 2010 that it favours US ratification of the CRC. However, the USA has not yet ratified this treaty (Somalia being the only other in the world to have done this).The USA’s virtual isolation on the CRC reflects a broader US reluctance to join and respect international human rights agreements.On the international stage, the USA claims to be committed to human rights – in fact to be a champion of such principles. However, its claims do not survive scrutiny when its record on treaty ratification and implementation is examined” said Rob Freer, USA researcher at Amnesty International.Freer points out that even when the USA has ratified some core human rights treaties, it has frequently attempted to qualify its ratification or interpret its obligations under the treaty in a manner that undermines some key protections and principles. The conditions attached by the USA to its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, for example, were exploited by US administration lawyers after the 9/11 attacks as part of the USA’s flawed legal arguments for interrogation techniques and detention conditions that violated the prohibition of torture or other ill-treatment. The USA continues as well to argue that most of its human rights treaty obligations simply do not apply to anything it does outside of US territory.“No doubt the USA will continue to promote itself as a progressive force for human rights, if not the most progressive in the world,” said Freer. “Without substantial change in laws, policies and practices, however, such proclamations continue to be punctured by the facts on the ground, whether those facts be the indefinite detentions and unfair trials at Guantánamo, the absence of accountability for counter-terrorism abuses, the continuing resort to the death penalty, including at unfair trials at Guantánamo,  or the use of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole against children.”