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Rights Groups Campaign to Exempt Young Offenders from Life Sentences Without Parole

Two of the world's leading human rights groups are campaigning to exempt youthful offenders in the United States from life sentences in jail without parole.

Amnesty International, the world's largest human rights monitoring group, and Human Rights Watch, the biggest human rights group in the United States, are urging authorities to abolish laws that put juvenile offenders in prison for life without a chance of parole.

The two groups have released a study showing that over 2,200 offenders across the United States are in jail for crimes they committed before the age of 18. According to the report, it was the first criminal offense for 59 percent of those convicted.

Josh Rubenstein, the regional director of Amnesty International for the northeastern United States, says mandatory life without parole sentences rob young first-time offenders of the chance for redemption.

"It is a human rights issue because yes, of course, anyone who commits a crime at any age needs to be punished and we need to be protected from them," he said. "But we all understand that if someone is not old enough to vote, old enough to drink, not old enough to sign a binding contract that they should not be held to the same degree of responsibility as an adult. That is why we do not have people under the age of 18 serve on juries."

The report also finds that while the vast majority of the young offenders were convicted of murder, a high percentage were involved in felony murders. In other words, they were at the scene of the crime or involved as accomplices, but not directly involved in killings.

Forty-two states currently have laws that permit people under the age of 18 to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 26 states life without parole sentences are mandatory for anyone convicted of committing first-degree murder, regardless of age.

The human rights groups recommend that such mandatory laws be abolished. At the very least, Mr. Rubenstein says, sentencing of minors should be left to the prerogative of judges.

"We believe that judges, at a minimum, should have the opportunity to provide a lower sentence when they feel, given the circumstances of the crime, the record of the individual involved, that life in prison for someone who is so young is simply an unjust sentence," he said. "Where it is mandatory, there are many more such sentences."

The human rights groups say they intend to challenge the laws in states across the nation, pushing for the possibility of parole.

Mr. Rubenstein says public opinion surveys show that 80 percent of Americans believe there should be an alternative to sentences of life in prison without parole for juvenile offenders.