Today’s New York Times includes an amazing story by Adam Liptak and Lisa Fayle Petak. Its opener speaks for itself in underscoring the misguided mindset of our justice system.
More than a decade ago, a 14-year-old boy killed his stepbrother in a scuffle that escalated from goofing around with a blowgun to an angry threat with a bow and arrow to the fatal thrust of a hunting knife.
The boy, Quantel Lotts, had spent part of the morning playing with Pokémon cards. He was in seventh grade and not yet five feet tall.
Mr. Lotts is 25 now, and he is in the maximum-security prison here, serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for murder.
According to the story, there are about seventy prisoners serving life without parole for homicides committed when they were 14 or younger. In my view, this is a barbaric policy.
Young people can certainly commit atrocities. As I have related before, I was once badly beaten in the New York subway by a group of kids who grabbed me by the hair and banged my head against a concrete floor to wrest away an $80 watch. Not long after that, my gentle cousin was beaten to death by two 16-year-old burglars.
Possessing newly-powerful bodies, surging hormones, and limited tools for impulse control, for thinking about the future, or for resolving conflict, some teenagers are genuinely dangerous. Some face the onset of serious psychiatric disorders. Some are involved in communuty or gang-related violence. Some must be locked up to protect themselves and others.
Until recently, states sometimes executed juveniles and people with IQ’s of 60. The Supreme Court found this unconstitutional, noting the pointless cruelty of such policies.
I see no empirical support, no pragmatic justification for policies which impose life sentences on a 14-year-old child who commits a stupid and impulsive crime. Such harsh policies are not necessary or helpful in creating a safer or a more humane society. It’s unworthy of our democracy that this question comes up for debate.