State lawmakers are following a national trend and challenging Gov. Neil Abercrombie to consider whether children convicted of first-degree murder should be treated differently than murderous adults.
Abercrombie’s signature is the only step remaining for a bill (HB 2116) that would abolish life sentences without parole for minors.
An Abercrombie spokesman said Wednesday he has not yet made a decision. He has until July 8 to sign or veto the proposal, and has to warn the Legislature about a potential veto by June 23.
Advocates say children are impressionable and sometimes cannot get out of horrific, crime-ridden environments. They say children also are more likely to rehabilitate.
But Honolulu prosecutors told lawmakers that it wouldn’t be fair to people who are born just weeks apart from slightly younger perpetrators of the same crime. They told the Legislature that the court system already makes special accommodations for young offenders who are under 22 years old and have no prior felony convictions.
In the past two years, four other states have eliminated life without parole as a sentence for juveniles, including Texas, Wyoming, Delaware and West Virginia, said James Dold, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. The Washington-based coalition helped craft Hawaii’s legislation.
The United States is the only country in the world that allows children to be sentenced to life without parole, Dold said.
"Internationally, this is looked at as a human rights abuse," Dold said. "It’s important for us as a country to be leader in this issue, and children shouldn’t be subject to what is tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment."
The Office of the Prosecuting Attorney of Kauai supported the proposal.
"Although it seems potentially inequitable that two defendants born weeks apart could receive dramatically different sentences for committing the same offense, this bill is a step in the correct direction," said Justin Kollar, prosecuting attorney for Kauai, in written testimony.