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Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic Calls for Abolition of Juvenile Life Sentences in U.S.

Media Contact: Public Affairs, 212-854-2650 or publicaffairs@law.columbia.edu

New York, March 25, 2014—The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic will appear in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in D.C. today to call for the abolition of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences in the U.S. The clinic is co-counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan’s JLWOP Initiative in a case filed with the Commission on behalf of 32 men and women charged, tried, and sentenced to life sentences in Michigan for offenses they committed as children.  

The case, Henry Hill v. U.S., challenges JLWOP as fundamentally incompatible with human rights norms and standards. Sentencing children to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole violates the right of a child to special protection; to humane treatment and due process guarantees; and the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or unusual punishment. The sentence fails to adhere to core principles that children should be incarcerated for the shortest duration possible and that juvenile punishment should aim to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth into society. 
 
“The United States stands alone in the world in the practice of sentencing children to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, and there is a near universal consensus against the use of the sentence around the world,” said acting co-director of the Human Rights Clinic, JoAnn Kamuf Ward
 
Approximately 2,500 individuals are serving JLWOP sentences in the U.S., and approximately 360 of those are in Michigan. Juveniles sentenced to life without parole are often incarcerated in adult facilities and denied access to the education and rehabilitation necessary to maintain their basic dignity.
 
The U.S. Supreme Court has limited the use of JLWOP sentences in two recent cases, but the possibility of life imprisonment without an opportunity for release remains for children in Michigan and other states. Through the proceedings at the Inter-American Commission, the Human Rights Clinic and its clients (petitioners) are seeking an authoritative statement that U.S. JLWOP sentencing practices violate international human rights law as well as concrete recommendations for reform at the federal and state level.   
 
Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and the Honorable Fred Mester, a retired Michigan judge, will provide oral testimony at today’s hearing on behalf of the petitioners. Amicus briefs in support of abolishing JLWOP sentences have been submitted by NAACP-LDF, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Georgetown Law School Human Rights Clinic, and the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing Youth, among other organizations.  
 
The Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute and the Human Rights Clinic have been engaged in domestic and international advocacy to address JLWOP for nearly a decade, including through amicus briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the cases Miller v. Alabama and Graham v. Florida, as well as through U.N. advocacy.
 
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is a principal and autonomous organ of the Organization of American States (OAS) whose mission is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere. The Commission has jurisdiction over the United States by virtue of U.S. membership in the OAS. After today’s hearing in Henry Hill v. U.S., the Commission has several months to issue a comprehensive decision with its conclusions and recommendations.
 
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The Human Rights Institute serves as the focal point of international human rights education, scholarship and practice at Columbia Law School. The Institute’s Human Rights in the U.S. project works to promote human rights at home and ensure U.S. compliance with international human rights standards.
 
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