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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Call on the Pennsylvania acting attorney general to ensure that a child not be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole

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13-year-old Jordan Brown is one of the youngest people that Amnesty International knows of who is currently at risk of being sentenced to life without parole. However, there are at least 2,500 people in the USA serving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. Jordan Brown's case is therefore starkly illustrative of a wider problem, and it is urgent that we lend our voices to persuade authorities in the USA to bring their country into line with international standards on the treatment of child offenders.

Jordan Brown, who was 11 at the time of the crime he's been accused of, has been automatically charged for trial in an adult court, as required by Pennsylvania law for cases involving murder. He has been charged with two counts of homicide, because the victim, Kenzie Houk, was eight and a half months pregnant and her unborn child also died.

The lower court judge had concluded that Jordan Brown failed to prove he could be rehabilitated and treated within the juvenile system, since he did not admit guilt or accept responsibility for the crime with which he has been charged. Jordan Brown’s lawyers appealed the decision, arguing that the way in which the judge had reached his conclusion had violated the boy’s right not to incriminate himself. In its decision on 11 March, the Pennsylvania Superior Court agreed with the lawyers’ arguments and, ruled against a lower court decision not to transfer the 13-year-old's case to juvenile court for trial and, ordered a new transfer hearing. This provides the Acting Attorney General, William H. Ryan JR., with a clear opportunity to reverse his position and argue in favour of a juvenile trial for Jordan Brown. The prosecution had until 10 April to appeal the ruling, but did not do so and, I hope that he will now drop his pursuit of an adult trial for the child.

If tried in an adult court and convicted of first-degree murder, Jordan Brown would be sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. This sentence, when imposed on anyone who was under 18 years old at the time of the crime, violates international law and, standards which are almost universally accepted around the world. These standards recognize that, however serious the crime, children, who are still developing physically, mentally and emotionally, do not have the same level of culpability as adults and require special treatment in the criminal justice system appropriate to their youth and immaturity. The standards emphasize that when children come into conflict with the law, the primary objectives should be the child's best interests and the potential for his or her successful reintegration into society. Life imprisonment without parole clearly is inconsistent with this international obligation.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the USA ratified in 1992, specifically acknowledges the need for special treatment of children in the criminal justice system and emphasizes the importance of their rehabilitation. Article 14(4) of the ICCPR states: “In the case of juvenile persons, the procedure shall be such as will take account of their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation”. In 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee, the expert body established by the ICCPR to oversee implementation of the treaty, reminded the USA that sentencing children to life imprisonment without parole is incompatible with the ICCPR. It called on the USA to ensure that no children were subjected to this sentence.

Yet the USA is believed to stand alone in sentencing children to life without parole. Although several countries technically permit the practice, Amnesty International knows of no cases outside the USA where such a sentence has been imposed in recent years. I would Therefore like to ask you to urge the prosecution to take the opportunity of the new transfer hearing to reconsider its position and drop its pursuit of a trial in an adult court.

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