Crime and Punishment Gangs Juvenile Justice

Should We Lock Certain Kids Away Forever?


The United States is unique in all the world
in its attitude toward punishing its young. Right now there are more than 2225 kids, age 17 or younger, who are serving life sentences in American prisons without the possibility of parole, according to a new study released today by the Equal Justice Initiative. Of those 2225 plus, the EJI researchers located at least 73 who were 13 or 14 at the time of their sentencing.

In December of last year, the United Nations voted on a resolution to ban the imposition of life sentences on children and young teenagers. The vote was 173 to 1. The U.S. cast the solitary NO vote.

Up until two years ago,
we were also the sole country in the world that handed out death sentences to juveniles. (The Supreme Court finally put a stop to that practice in 2005, with the case known as Roper v. Simmons.)

Using the Equal Justice initiative report as a jumping off point,
today’s New York Times has an interesting and nuanced take on the question of whether juveniles who have committed serious crimes should be given the opportunity to one day be released:

Corrections professionals and criminologists
here and abroad tend to agree that violent crime is usually a young person’s activity, suggesting that eventual parole could be considered in most cases. But 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.

One of the most alarming elements of the EJI report is the section on the histories of the kids who have received life sentences, most of whom have been victims of abuse and/or neglect, often to a staggering degree.

Children sentenced to die in prison have in common the disturbing failure of police, family courts, child protection agencies, foster systems, and health care providers to treat and protect them. Their crimes occur in the midst of crisis, often resulting from desperate, misguided attempts to protect themselves.

And then the report goes on to list some harrowing examples.

Ashley Jones was repeatedly threatened at gunpoint
by her parents, sexually assaulted by her stepfather, forced into crack houses by an addicted mother, physically abused by family members, and abducted by a gang shortly before her crime.

Severe neglect is also common among children in this group.
Joseph Jones grew up in Newark public housing, where his crack-addicted parents left him to cook, clean, and take care of his six younger siblings. At 13, Joseph’s parents took him to North Carolina and abandoned him with relatives.

Quantel Lotts saw his uncle gunned down
in his front yard in a poor St. Louis neighborhood, where his mother used and sold crack cocaine out of their house. Quantel was removed from his mother’s custody at age eight; he smelled of urine, his teeth were rotting, and his legs, arms, and head bore scars from being punched and beaten with curtain rods and broom handles.

EJI’s lawyers have taken around a dozen of these lifer kids as clients and are challenging their sentences. Among the worst of their horror stories is that of Anthony Nunez, a kid who was sentenced to life in prison for a crime committed by adults in which no one was hurt.

When the juvenile justice system was invented over 100 years ago, it was based on the idea that children and adolescents were developmentally different than adults, that they were still forming psychologically and, as such, were less mindful of the consequences of their actions, and more malleable to transformation and reform. It was, therefore, the duty of the court to look at each young man or woman who came before it and to ask the question: is this kid redeemable?

A growing number of organizations think we should start asking that question again about our nation’s lifer kids.

The rest of the world’s nations agree. Unfortunately, at this point anyway, American public policy does not.

(photo by Jessica McGowan/The Birmingham News)


  • Frankly, I don’t care what the rest of the world does. We do what is right for us, and maybe that’s better. This nonsense about “international law or consensus” forming some kind of basis for our rulings are advanced by people like Justice Ginsberg, who has put “international law” above our Constitution before, and is wrong. But, if one gets worried about the number of U.S. kids in prison, we can adopt some of the laws of the 173 other countries and hang homosexuals and people found with drugs. That sure cuts down the prison statistics.

    In any event, if you look at the numbers presented, those amounts are statistically insignificant, and the vote by the U.N. was clearly a vote against the U.S. I don’t know why we fund that organization, which has lost credibility with so many and maybe the majority of Americans.

    It’s best to consider the individuals imprisoned and their individual situations rather than consider this some class action offense. And, as I believe, we’ll probably find that some of the criminals cannot be rehabilitated and should be in prison for life–which is better than the hangings of other countries. And, don’t forget, prison is more than about rehabilitation, it also is about punishment.

  • Now, these are the real kid criminals that need to be put away for good:

    LINK: New face of vandalism?

    A 6-year-old Park Slope girl is facing a $300 fine from the city for doing what city kids have been doing for decades: drawing a pretty picture with common sidewalk chalk.

    Isn’t government great?

  • Celeste – There you go again defending the criminals of this country, the more young kids we put in prison the more effective our justice system is, I already told you this. The younger we lock them up the less time they spend on the streets committing crimes. We should lock them up at 4-5 years old, to prevent more crime. We have the best justice system in the world end of story, period.

    You are so Anti-American and Un-Patriotic when will you ever write a story about how great our country is. You and the Nobel Prize committee, United Nations, ACLU, Major News Media, Liberals, Red Cross and UNICEF all hate America.

    And I reiterate, frankly, I don’t care what the rest of the world does. We do what is right for us, and maybe that’s better. I hope you liberals will not get off topic and criticize President Bush’s great efforts to place our ideas of government and religion in Iraq.

  • Only comment I’ll make here in the spirit of the “new Civility” that brother Marc Cooper is calling for is the following: Anyone else notice the color of the “super Preditor?”

  • Eat your Young

    The womans liberation, divorce on demand and Johnson’s welfare state which drove fathers out of the family have more to do with youg preditors than anything else.

    Liberal thought is so foolishly myopic that it did not foresee the destructive consequences especially on the poor of these well meaning programs.

  • Pokey, I’m curious. Do you support this appointment?

    The Bush administration again has appointed a chief of family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services who has been critical of contraception.

    Susan Orr, most recently an associate commissioner in the Administration for Children and Families, was appointed Monday to be acting deputy assistant secretary for population affairs. She will oversee $283 million in annual grants to provide low-income families and others with contraceptive services, counseling and preventive screenings.


  • I wonder if our regular female commentator, who at times criticizes us “liberals” will defend Pokey’s comment, that “woman’s liberation” is the cause of young predators. I guess we need to keep them uppity woman barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen to save the kids.

  • LA Res, I have seen polls about how women are less happy in the work world and wish that they could stay home with their kids. If they didn’t, I would wonder about their nurturing instincts. Yes, I think that mothers working and not being home when their kids get out of school is a significant factor in kids getting into trouble then and later in life.

    rlc, I do see the color of the kid, but honestly that didn’t cross my mind when I saw the picture. Should it have? I didn’t look it up, what what did that kid do?

    Woody’s Ghost, if you want to get cute, I can use a fake name and do even more hilarious take-offs on liberals. They provide more than enough material. But, when you listed those who hated America, you left off Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.

  • Listener, I am not sure about the Orr appointment, but I would immagine she is against giving contraceptives to elementary school children.

    I am in the desert (Joshua Tree area) with only my trusty blackberry, so my ability to research is limited.

  • L A Res, I’m not going to rise (o sink, as Woody notes) to commenting on trivial comments this way or that. I just think it’s curious that you go out of your way to find instances to discredit anti-terror preparedness, the whole notion is some sort of conservative plot to take control of America. When in fact it’s liberal propaganda and blindness to Stalinism that made light of the very real terror in Russia and the whole “Eastern bloc” (I hate that word, it defines central europe by the dark force that controlled it) during Stalinism and the Cold War. While leftists in America were sitting around in the 50’s drinking white wine and whining about not getting work under their own names (as though the blacklist were equivalent to concentration camps) there were tens of millions of people truly suffering, dying and their countries being destroyed. — To this day, they’re the “heroes” and Elia Kazan demonized.

    One thing that does really concern me is trampling on the writ or habeus corpus, knowing what you’re being imprisoned and tried for — that leaves too much subjective power in the hands of the authorities.

    I’m even more concerned that LAX just failed an anti-terror inspection check: despite all the intrusion into the lives and privacy and dignity of average travelers, true terrorists with a little planning can still get through.

    Woody, elsewhere it’s been reported that we have some 150 kids who were given sentences of life w/out parole under age 14 at the time of sentencing, and sometimes for cases when no one was killed (e.g., being accomplices in kidnapping). Even those these kids are sometimes a different species from what we know, and judges may respond to that feeling of incorrigibility (carjacking at gasstations, preferably with the female owner along for the ride, is a rite of passage to ganghood here in L A), this extreme punishment is still wrong, often a function of the mandatory sentencing laws.

    We are an anomaly on this and other issues in Europe and the developed world. However, their “liberal” laws in some regards, contrasted with ethnic and cultural homogeneity, and feelings and laws excluding unassimilated immigrants, have ironically resulted in societies with a much more hostile Muslim minority and problems which are threatening to undermine their societies within just two generations.

    But yes, Woody, it would be amazing if some of the postings here and comments from the regulars weren’t so predictable: what’s wrong with America, let’s blogbang anyone who doesn’t support single-payer/socialized health care, the myth that it’s lack of money, not liberal social experiments like busing that ruined big-city public schools, yada yada. As they blame the white middle class for everything, those dull people who follow the laws, pay their taxes, take personal responsibility for raising, educating and disciplining their kids instead of demanding gov’t do it all for them — that very demographic is (surprise) feeling neglected and even embattled across the country. That’s what’s playing out in the elections or rather, keeping many people unengaged.

  • The government’s job is keep bad people away from me. Even if there is only a miniscule chance the bad people will again hurt someone, it is not worth taking that chance.

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