MICHELE NORRIS, host:

I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

I'm Melissa Block. And this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

NORRIS: When you think of a lifer, a prisoner condemned to die behind bars, you'll likely imagine that person was sentenced as an adult. A new study found that at least 73 of these so-called lifers were sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility for parole for crimes committed when they were younger than 14.

The study was conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit advocacy group based in Montgomery, Alabama. It found that the U.S. is the only country in the world that condemns children that young to life without parole.

The group also found that mandatory sentencing laws have increasingly led judges to impose the harsher sentences without regard to the offender's age.

Bryan Stevenson is the executive director for the Equal Justice Initiative. He joins us from Montgomery, Alabama. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRYAN STEVENSON (Executive Director, Equal Justice Initiative): Thank you.

NORRIS: Now, these 73 juvenile offenders, where are they serving out their sentences and what kinds of crimes did they commit?

Mr. STEVENSON: These 73 kids are being housed in adult prisons in 19 states around the country. About 10 percent are there for crimes like attempted robbery, kidnapping, sexual assault. It was one of the surprising findings that you could - you had children 13 and 14 years of age condemned to die in prison for offenses where no one was killed.

NORRIS: And in one case, no one was injured, is that correct?

Mr. STEVENSON: That's right. It's a very surprising case out of California involving Antonio Nunez, who was convicted of aggravated kidnapping. He was accused of getting in a car with two older men, one of whom later claimed that he was a kidnap victim. And these men were chased by some undercover police agents and shots were fired. No one was injured, but Mr. Nunez was convicted with an older co-defendant of aggravated kidnapping. And the California law had a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

NORRIS: What impact have these mandatory sentencing laws had on these juvenile offenders and those that are sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole?

Mr. STEVENSON: About 75 percent of these children had been condemned to die because the judge did not have discretion to consider their age or their background or any of the circumstances of the offense.

Mandatory sentencing laws have played a critical role in seeing these kinds of harsh sentences imposed on kids who are 13 and 14.

NORRIS: Now, someone say that there are judges who have exercised judicial discretion, who have stepped outside of these laws and these sentencing guidelines when they see fit.

Mr. STEVENSON: Well, mandatory sentencing means that for certain kinds of crimes, the judge doesn't have that discretion. That doesn't mean that discretion is eliminated. What mandatory sentencing has done in most systems is shift discretion from the judge to the prosecutor and to the police.

The prosecutor can always choose to not move that a child be tried as an adult or charge differently or prosecute the case differently. And so you will see some disparate results based on who the child is and who the prosecutor is. I mean, it's not a huge surprise to us that two-thirds of these kids are black and brown, that is racial minorities.

Almost all of these kids were poor and could not get the kind of legal assistance that we believe they needed. And those factors, along with prosecutorial discretion, is what explains how these kids end up facing judges who can't consider their age or their background.

NORRIS: Your report looks at the number of children who are under 14 years old. If you raise that age cap and look at the number of children who are 16 and under, how would those numbers change?

Mr. STEVENSON: So there are 2,250 children who are 17 and younger. And so the numbers get considerably higher as you move up the teenage years.

NORRIS: The prison industrial complex is huge in this country. So when we talk about 73 people, it seems like a small number.

Mr. STEVENSON: Well, that's one of the arguments about why the court should strike this down. It is an unusual sentence. And that's the language of the Eighth Amendment. But, you know, we believe that when you tolerate this kind of sentence for kids this young, you condemn a much bigger percentage of the population for other kinds of offenses. And I think creating some limits, kind of drawing the boundaries of what is cruel and what's excessive, is an important conversation for America to be having right now. And we've got to find a way to reevaluate whether that's a sensible, just way to manage a lot of social problems.

NORRIS: Bryan Stevenson, thank you for talking to us.

Mr. STEVENSON: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Bryan Stevenson is the executive director for the Equal Justice Initiative.

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