Behind Bars, Forever: American Children Jailed for Life

Article excerpt


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. …