Behind Bars, Forever: American Children Jailed for Life

By Schutte, Casey | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Behind Bars, Forever: American Children Jailed for Life

Schutte, Casey, Kennedy School Review


The law does not trust them to vote. It forbids them from watching certain movies in the theater or signing up for a credit card on their own. Consuming alcohol is certainly off limits, as is smoking cigarettes. Society proscribes certain activities for these people because, the thinking goes, they lack the wisdom of age and so cannot be trusted to make informed choices.

But when some children commit crimes, the calculus changes. Suddenly the legal system has no problem assigning children responsibility for their own decisions, implicitly concluding that crime committed by the young is the product of a deliberate decision-making process. These children are sentenced to die in prison.

And it is not only sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, adolescents who may look old enough to buy alcohol, who are sentenced to life without parole. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented seventy-three cases in the United States where children thirteen- and fourteen-years-old have been given a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) (Equal Justice Initiative 2007). Absent a change in their sentence or some form of pardon, these kids will never again experience life outside an institution. All seventy-three of them are people of color, and most have histories as victims of abuse or neglect.

Take, for example, Quantel Lotts. Quantel grew up in a troubled section of St. Louis. His mother sold and used drugs at home, and Quantel lived in three different foster homes before his father took him to live in a different part of the state. During an argument with his stepbrother, Michael, Quantel fatally stabbed him with a knife. Quantel, fourteen at the time of the stabbing, was sentenced to LWOP.

Even the combination of young age and mental disability does not preclude a sentence of life without parole. Joe Sullivan has a severe cognitive impairment and was thirteen when an older codefendant accused Joe of a sexual battery that allegedly took place in a home they burglarized together. Joe denied the allegations and still maintains his innocence. He was sentenced to die in jail and is currently serving his time in Florida.

The United States stands alone in its willingness to hand out LWOP sentences to children. A 2005 Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch study found that while at least twelve countries still had laws allowing juvenile life without parole, only three other countries had children actually serving the sentence: Israel had seven, South Africa four, and Tanzania one. At this point, the United States is likely the only country in the world that continues to impose the sentence in new cases.

The United States' status as an outlier is due in part to the fact that juvenile LWOP contravenes several international treaties. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example, has been ratified by 193 nations; the United States is one of only two countries in the world that has refused ratification. Article 37 of the Convention states, "Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age" (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 1989).

Such juvenile sentences also constitute a violation of additional international treaties including: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice; the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 2009).

In 2010, the Supreme Court brought the United States closer to international norms when it placed substantial limitations on states' freedom to sentence juveniles to life without parole: no LWOP for non-homicide crimes.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Behind Bars, Forever: American Children Jailed for Life


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?