POLITICS
05/13/2014 04:54 pm ET

Hawaii On Track To End Life Sentences Without Parole For Minors

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Seven states across the country have already outlawed life sentences for minors, and it looks like Hawaii might be next.

The bill, which is now at Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s (D) desk, would abolish life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when the offender was younger than 18.

Introduced by state Reps. Karen Awana (D) and John Mizuno (D), the bill says that juveniles should have the opportunity for parole because they are “more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures ... they have limited control over their own environment, and they may lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.”

Abercrombie is reviewing the fine print of the legislation with Attorney General David Louie. Abercrombie has until July 8 to sign or veto the bill.

Currently, Hawaii requires annual reevaluations of all prisoners eligible for parole; the juvenile sentencing bill would allow children convicted of first-degree murder to be sentenced to life, but they would subsequently be eligible for parole and reevaluation.

Recent studies have shown that adolescence -- which is defined as puberty up to the mid-20s -- is still a formative period in development and that youth are amenable and responsive to therapy. Furthermore, the juvenile sentencing bill notes that, when “neurological development occurs, the individual can become a contributing member of society.”

Opponents of life without parole for juveniles argue that, while adolescent behaviors mimic those that define antisocial personality disorder -- such as irritability, lying, truancy or failure to accept responsibility -- they are prevalent in adolescents only because those individuals are still developing mentally.

But Honolulu prosecutors say that it wouldn't be fair to draw lines separating offenders from others who were born just weeks earlier, and that the state already accommodates offenders who are younger than 22 years old with no prior convictions.

The United States is the only country in the world that imposes life sentences without parole on minors, a violation of Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that “neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age.” In 2009, Human Rights Watch calculated that there are more than 2,500 youth offenders serving life without parole in the United States.

As recently as 2005, minors under the age of 18 were allowed to be sentenced to death. The Supreme Court’s Roper v. Simmons decision made the U.S. the last Western country to abolish the death penalty for minors.

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