In most Western democracies, the judiciary is a branch of government independent of other branches. The judiciary's primary role is to interpret and apply the law to various cases brought to the courts. When deciding on a matter, judges consider several factors such as judicial precedent and the law of the land. In several instances, judges also take into consideration the nature of the perpetrator. Cases in which children are the perpetrators are usually decided in juvenile courts. Children are given a wide range of sentences such as being compelled to apologize and pay for the damages they have caused or being put in a detention facility. The US is the world's only nation where children can be sentenced to life imprisonment.
During the early years of America's history, its laws were heavily influenced by the laws of England, particularly the common law. At the time, children under the age of seven could not be considered guilty of committing a crime as they did not understand the consequences of their actions. Those above the age of fourteen were believed to have an understanding of their actions and could be judged as adults for their crimes. If a child was older than seven but younger than fourteen, it was first determined if the child was aware of right and wrong before charging them with a crime. Reforms in American society led to the development of the first-ever juvenile court in Illinois in 1899. The development of the juvenile system was mainly to rehabilitate young offenders to prevent them from going further down a path of crime.
Children Serving Life Sentences in the US
The US has approximately 10,000 people in prison serving life sentences for crimes they committed while under the age of 18, and about 2,500 of these individuals are serving a sentence without the possibility of parole. Most of the children serving life sentences were charged as adults for various crimes such as first-degree murder. The issue of having children serving life sentences was raised at the Supreme Court which resulted in the judges deciding that courts have to consider each case individually. In 2005, the Supreme Court decided that children could not be given the death penalty. In 2010, Supreme Court judges decided that the only instance where a child could be sentenced to life without parole was if the case involved homicide.
Activism Against Life Imprisonment for Children
Most of the children currently in prison serving life sentences lack legal representation to pressure for the review of their cases. One of the organizations challenging the commuting of life sentences to children is the Equal Justice Initiative. The members of the initiative believe that the punishment is too cruel given that children lack a proper understanding of what is right and wrong.
Impacts of Prison on Children
Individuals who are sentenced to prison as children have a difficult time integrating back into the community once they are released; finding a job is particularly challenging because most people have prejudice against them. Prison can have a positive impact on children as they can receive therapy which aids in their rehabilitation. Educational opportunities are also available to children sentenced to prison. Most professionals agree that prison should focus more on rehabilitating those who are convicted than punishing them.