Bryan Stevenson, professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), testified today before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security in support of the Juvenile Justice Accountability Act, which would require states to grant child offenders who are serving a life sentence a meaningful opportunity for parole. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).
Stevenson testified that sentencing young children to die in prison is unconstitutional and violates international law. EJI has documented 73 cases where defendants are serving life sentences for offenses committed when they were 13 or 14 years old. These cases are the subject of a forthcoming film, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison. According to EJI, some of these children were charged with crimes that did not involve homicide or bodily injury, and many were convicted for offenses where older teenagers or adults were involved and primarily responsible for the crime.
Stevenson told the subcommittee that most of the children were sentenced under mandatory sentencing schemes that did not allow the sentencing judge to consider the childs age or background. According to EJI, nearly two-thirds of these defendants are people of color, and many share histories of severe abuse or neglect.
The imposition of life imprisonment without parole sentences on the 13- and 14-year-olds documented in EJIs report reveals the misguided consequences of thoughtlessly surrendering children to the adult criminal justice system, Stevenson testified. The denial of all hope to a child whose brain much less his character or personality is not yet developed cannot be reconciled with societys commitment to help, guide, and nurture our children.
Stevenson has represented capital defendants and death row prisoners in the Deep South since 1985 and, for the past 18 years, has directed the non-profit EJI, which champions the legal rights of the poor and people of color in Alabama. He and his colleagues have helped reduce or overturn death sentences in more than 60 cases.
Considered one of the top public interest lawyers in the country, Stevenson was included in Lawdragons 2007 Leading Lawyers in America guide. In 1995, he received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Award. He is also the recipient of the Reebok Human Rights Award and the ACLU National Medal of Liberty.
Stevenson received a B.A. from Eastern College in 1981 and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1985. He also earned a masters degree in public policy from Harvards Kennedy School of Government in 1985. He has worked as an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and has represented capital defendants as the executive director of the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center. He joined the clinical faculty at NYU School of Law in 1998.
For Stevensons complete testimony, go to: http://eji.org/eji/files/HR4300testimony.pdf. To view a preview of the film, Cruel and Unusual: Sentencing 13- and 14-Year-Old Children to Die in Prison, go to http://www.eji.org.
- Reporter Contact: Bryan Stevenson
Professor of Clinical Law
NYU School of Law