Criminal Justice

Life Sentences for Minors Go to International Tribunal

The U.S. is pretty much alone on this one


By her thirteenth birthday, Barbara Hernandez had lived with an abusive, alcoholic father and been molested by her mother's second husband.  At fifteen, Barbara dropped out of school and moved in with her boyfriend James, who beat her and coerced her into prostitution. Barbara's life with James had taught her that she had two choices: obey him or face physical abuse.  So when James instructed her to buy him a knife and lure a man into their home, Barbara obeyed.  While she was in another room, James stabbed the man to death.  Despite Barbara's youth, troubled background, and the fact that she did not physically commit the crime, Barbara was tried as if she were an adult and received the harshest sentence possible in the State of Michigan, life without the possibility of parole.  She was just sixteen, and about to spend the rest of her life in prison.  In Barbara's words, she was sentenced to a "long slow death."

Barbara's case is not unique; she is just one of approximately 2,500 Americans currently serving life without the possibility of parole sentences for crimes committed when they were children.  In stark contrast, no other country in the world subjects children to such sentences.