ALABASTER, Alabama (Reuters) - Underage criminals cannot face the death penalty in the United States but dozens of offenders imprisoned for crimes committed when they were young teenagers will still die behind bars.
The U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for minors in 2005 but 19 states permit "life-means-life" sentences for those under 18, according to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
In all, 2,225 people are sentenced to die in U.S. prisons for crimes they committed as minors and 73 of them were aged 13 and 14 at the time of the crime, according to the group, which is based in Montgomery, Alabama.
Elsewhere in the world, life sentences with no chance of parole are rare for underage offenders. Human Rights Watch estimates that only 12 people outside the United States face such sentences.
Judicial reform advocates say the U.S. provision is an example of how harsh sentences have helped cause a jump in incarceration rates since the 1970s. The United States jails a higher percentage of its population than anywhere else in the industrialized world, these advocates say.
"These kids have been swept up in this tide of carceral control that is unparalleled in American history," said Bryan Stevenson, director of the EJI. "We have become quite comfortable about throwing people away," he said.
Others defend the statute, arguing it is popular with voters and gives comfort to victims to know that perpetrators of serious crimes against them will not one day walk free.
They also use an "adult crime, adult time" argument -- minors who commit adult crimes should be punished as adults.
The case of Ashley Jones, who was 14 when she killed, illustrates the seriousness of many crimes that result in for-life sentences.
One night in August 1999, Jones and her 16-year-old boyfriend, Geramie Hart, angered by her family's disapproval of their relationship, went to her home in Birmingham, Alabama. They set her grandfather on fire with lighter fluid, stabbed him and shot him dead.
They also stabbed and shot dead Jones' aunt in her bedroom and set her grandmother on fire.
Jones' 10-year-old sister, Mary, was asleep in bed but they dragged her to the kitchen to see the attack on her family.
"I had to sit there and watch her (Ashley) torture my grandmother. I saw her in flames," said Mary Jones, recounting her ordeal in an interview in Alabaster, Alabama.
"Geramie ... picked me up by my neck and pointed a gun at me and said: 'This is how you are going to die.' Ashley said: 'No, wait. I'll do her."'
They stabbed Mary Jones repeatedly, puncturing a lung, and drove off leaving her and her grandmother, whose injuries included burns, stab and gunshot wounds, to stagger outside.
The questions raised by criminal cases involving teenagers are difficult to answer.
Is a young teenager responsible for crimes in the same way as an adult and to what extent, if at all, should courts consider a minor's family situation and background?
"It goes against human inclinations to give up completely on a young teenager. It's impossible for a court to say that any 14-year-old never has the possibility to live in society," said Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
The Equal Justice Initiative has filed suits in six states challenging the life-without-parole sentences and has brought a case in federal court in northern Alabama over the Jones case, arguing it represents cruel and unusual punishment.
Hart is also serving the same sentence.
The group says a disproportionate number of the minors serving the sentence are black or Hispanic and many were tried as adults with inadequate legal counsel. Also, it says up to 70 percent were given mandatory sentences.
Not all those serving life-means-life sentences for crimes committed as minors are convicted killers.
Antonio Nunez was convicted of multiple counts of attempted murder and also aggravated kidnapping and sentenced to life without parole for his role in a kidnap, police chase and shootout in April, 2001, in which nobody was injured.
Nunez, aged 14 at the time of the crime, grew up in a part of Los Angeles where gang activity was common. In 2000, he was wounded and his brother killed in a gang-related shooting.
His sister Cindy Nunez said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles the life sentence devastated her family.
"He has lost all hope .... We try to keep his spirits up by saying something will change in the law," she said.
Mary Jones, now 19, is attempting to reconstruct her life. She testified against her sister in court but has visited her in jail. She blames Hart for changing her sister from "the sweetest girl" into a murderer.
"She should have a chance to have a life. Her life shouldn't just be taken away from her like that. Sometimes I'm kind of mad and then I'm sad," she said. "I practically lost her too because she is in prison."
Reporting by Matthew Bigg; Editing by Michael Christie and Eddie Evans