17 October 2007

"An island in the sea of international law": US exceptionalism in criminal law - and in quite a lot else...

A piece by Adam Liptak in today's International Herald Tribune on life inprisonment for teenage offenders has some very interesting statements on US legal exceptionalism. Liptak refers to a recent UN resolution against life inprisonment without parole for young offenders - to which the United States were the lone dissenter. Based on interviews with Yale's James Q. Whitman and other experts, Liptak writes of a comparison between US and European approaches to juvenile offenders:

"Comparing legal systems is difficult, in part because the United States is a more violent society and in part because many other nations imprison relatively few people and often only for repeat violent offenses.

The differences in the two approaches, (...) , are rooted in politics and culture. The European systems emphasize rehabilitation, while the American one stresses individual responsibility and punishment. (...) The American legal system is more responsive to popular concerns about crime and attitudes about punishment, while justice systems abroad tend to be administered by career civil servants rather than elected legislators, prosecutors and judges.

In its sentencing of juveniles, as in many other areas, the legal system in the United States goes it alone. American law is, by international standards, a series of innovations and exceptions. From the central role played by juries in civil cases to the election of judges to punitive damages to the disproportionate number of people in prison, the United States is an island in the sea of international law".

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