The U.S. Supreme Court, this week, hears arguements on whether to abolish juvenile life sentences without parole, taking into consideration arguements by USF's Constance de la Vega, professor and academic director of international programs, and Michelle Leighton, director of the School of Law’s human rights programs.
The efforts of two University of San Francisco law professors to
abolish juvenile life sentences without parole by courts in the United
States have been rewarded with a $140,000 grant from the Ford
The grant, coupled with another from the U.S. Human
Rights Fund, will pay for the second phase of the End Juvenile Life
Without Parole project, led by Constance de la Vega, professor and
academic director of international programs, with support from Michelle
Leighton, director of the School of Law’s human rights programs, on
behalf of USF’s Center for Law and Global Justice. De la Vega and
Leighton are the authors of the 2007 report Sentencing Our Children to Die.
their most consequential foray into the courts to date, de la Vega and
Leighton recently submitted amicus, or friend of the court, briefs in
two JLWOP cases, Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, before the U.S. Supreme Court. They have been designated as the lead
attorneys for a number of amici in the Graham case, including several European bar associations and Human Rights Advocates.
The Graham case
– involving then 16-year-old Terrance Graham who pleaded guilty to
armed burglary and attempted armed robbery of a restaurant, a probation
violation, before receiving the maximum sentence – will be heard by the
U.S. Supreme Court this week.
“We believe that this is an
exciting opportunity to move the Supreme Court to utilize international
law standards and U.S. treaty obligations in its decision,” Leighton
Three years into the multi-year project, de la Vega and
Leighton have already succeeded in convincing various United Nations
member countries and committees to affirm through a number of U.N.
resolutions that juvenile life sentences without parole JLWOP violate
As the lone academic institution
working to solidify international law against JLWOP sentencing, USF is
leading attempts to use those laws to pressure the United States – the
only country in the world that continues to sentence minors to life
without parole – to comply with international standards.
juvenile life without parole sentence represents the United States’
most egregious human rights violations against children in the penal
process, with death in prison resulting,” de la Vega said.
JLWOP sentencing, according to de la Vega and Leighton, will go a long
way toward curbing related human rights violations, prejudice,
discrimination against minorities and socio-economically disadvantaged
youth, and overcrowded jails.
The grants will assist de la Vega
and Leighton in further challenging juvenile sentences in court with
current international human rights laws and documenting abuses related
to JLWOP sentencing in the United States.
In addition to
assisting juvenile defenders in crafting legal arguments to challenge
JLWOP sentences, the two professors, in collaboration with the National
Juvenile Defender Center, are compiling an online database, or brief
bank, for lawyers who want to access international law- and
treaty-related cases in the United States that challenge JLWOP
The JLWOP project also strives to engage legal
advocates at the local and national levels in human rights education
De la Vega, who largely faults politicians’ and
prosecutors’ desire to appear tough on crime and prison guard unions
for America’s isolation on the JLWOP issue, argues that early
intervention and rehabilitation would go further in turning juvenile
offenders into productive members of society than life without parole
“Children are not adults,” de la Vega said. “All the
studies show that the brains of children are not developed enough to
understand the consequences of their actions, sometimes even until they
are in their 20s.”