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Sentencing Minors to Life Without Parole Is Declared Unconstitutional in Washington State

In a contentious verdict reached on Thursday, Washington State's Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to sentence minors to life imprisonment without parole.

With the ruling, Washington joined 20 other states and the District of Columbia that consider juvenile life without parole unconstitutional—or, in the words of Washington's court, "cruel punishment."

The decision involved a 33-year-old currently serving life in prison for killing his family when he was 16. The majority opinion determined that life imprisonment does not serve as a form of retribution or deterrence when applied to offenders under the age of 18, even for the highest degree of murder.

"We're thrilled ... that Washington has joined the ever-growing number of states that have abandoned the barbaric practice of sentencing our children to die in prison," says Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. "This national trend reflects an emerging consensus that our children who commit serious crimes should be held accountable in more age-appropriate ways that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society."

The United States is the only country in the world that allows its courts to sentence youth to die in prison. Various international laws condemn sentencing minors to life without the possibility of parole. Up until the U.S. Supreme Court heard Roper v. Simmons in 2004, the U.S. was also one of the only countries in the world that sentenced youth to the death penalty; in 1999, Oklahoma executed Sean Richard Sellers, who had been 16 years old when convicted of his crimes.

Washington's five-to-four ruling comes exactly a week after the court's unanimous decision to end the death penalty in the state.