When 14-year-olds kill

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

25 thoughts on “When 14-year-olds kill”

  1. Hm, suppose it’s a clever and carefully premeditated crime? Maybe it would be ok, then? “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.”

    That’s a heck of a lot of escalation, several steps, to attribute to a moment’s anger. Every murderer is just misunderstood, according to the people trying to get them off.

  2. Brett with the strawmen, again. No one has suggested that 14-year-olds who kill people should “get off” but that with help and time many, probably most, of them can grow into people who are not a danger to society.

    It’s a waste of both their lives and our money to warehouse them for life.

  3. (Pollack): “…no pragmatic justification…
    One would think that ten years of pennitence would suffice. Discounting the anti-socialization of current prisons, I’d agree in general that impulsive offenders can probably be reformed.
    However…
    Parents roll a bucket of dice when they put their kids together, and some kids come up snake-eyes. The human and canine IQ curves overlap. Psychotic, meth-addled chimpanzees and calculating sharks in human form walk among us. Environmential remediation (prenatal nutrition, supportive early maternal care, varied and competitive markets in education services, humane prison practices) can only go so far.

  4. Malcolm, if we’re in the role of rolling dice (which is a terribly inhumane way to think of actual people with wills of their own), then why should there be such a divergent punishment conditioned on a random variable, such as how fast the paramedics arrive? (for example, not specifically this case.)

    The knife goes a centimeter to the left, and the victim is alive, and the punishment is less. But the intent the same, the criminal the same.

  5. “We” don’t roll dice; parents roll genetic dice when they put their kids together. No environmental remediation will transform a leopard into a golden retriever. I could legally keep a golden retriever in this neighborhood, but not a leopard. Most of the difference between a 70 kilo human and a 70 kilo leopard is genetic. Accept the argument for laws which bar leopards from society and you accept, in abstract, arguments for indefinite incarceration of some people.

    why should there be such a divergent punishment conditioned on a random variable, such as how fast the paramedics arrive?
    This is a different argument, but okay.
    Inevitably, somebody exercises discretion. Making laws clear means making them succinct and giving judges less discretion in admitting evidence and in sentencing. “Intent” requires an attempt to read minds. Instead, we relate punishment to result, and leave to calculating criminals to weigh “how fast the paramedics arrive”. Seems to me the two policy regimes will yield the same results, approximately, with the advantage to the shorter, less uncertain and discretionary legal code. That’s why.

  6. Well, Malcolm certainly has this kid all figured out. Nothing to be done; warehouse for life. Me, I’m not so perspicacious as to know everything about the possible outcomes of trying to treat the kid from reading a couple-dozen words of blog post, but maybe one day I, like Malcolm, can be completely assured about the kid’s being a Certified Incurable Hopeless Genetic Wrong-Un from knowing a very little bit about one horrific day. Maybe if I start drinking heavily.

  7. (Warren): “Well, Malcolm certainly has this kid all figured out…
    No. I don’t know the kid. I addressed the “no empirical support, no pragmatic justification” assertion.

  8. I still stand by my statement – calling some kid ‘a bad roll of the dice’ is a terribly inhumane thing to say. It reduces the person to a mere thing that is badly put together. Deserving to be disposed of, say [Goodwin Violation removed]

  9. Notice how Brett immediately has to change the facts.

    Myself, I’m puzzled how this didn’t become a plea to manslaughter. What was the prosecutor thinking???

  10. … Ah, never mind, here’s the answer:

    Quantel and his brother Dorell were inseparable, he recalled, from Ms. Lotts’s three boys. The group was sometimes taunted because Quantel and Dorell were black and the other boys were white.

    Black boy killed a white boy. Life without parole, there ya go.

  11. The “clever and premeditated” bit was a hypothetical, to see if the opposition was to ALL life imprisonment of minors. Who are, after all, capable of being clever and premeditated in their crimes, as much as they are capable of being stupid and impulsive.

    In the present instance, we’re not talking about somebody who is suffering for a moment’s act. We’re talking about an extended escalation of force. And we’re talking after hearing only the side of the people who want him released. I’m just guessing, mind you, but I suspect he didn’t get life just because the jury was mad about the anchovies on their pizza. Who knows, maybe some stuff came out during the trial they thought was relevant?

    I’m not going to double guess the trial result, on the basis of this account.

  12. (Mobius): “…calling some kid ‘a bad roll of the dice’ is a terribly inhumane thing to say…
    Did you ever take a Genetics course? Ever study meiosis in Biology 101? The dice metaphor applies.
    (Mobius): “…It reduces the person to a mere thing that is badly put together.
    And your point is…?
    Do you have any factual disagreement with what I wrote?

  13. much of the reasoning the majority applied in the roper decision abolishing the death penalty for defendants 17 and under would seem to apply even more to defendants 14 and under. given that the defense was offered the chance to plead guilty of 2nd degree murder before the trial, it seems that quantel suffered from poor representation in addition to any other hardships he might have faced.

  14. Malcolm, speaking as an actual geneticist (albeit an invertebrate experimental geneticist, not a medical geneticist), may I advance the hypothesis that you are, to put it mildly, full of it. Yes, there will be variability in intelligence and in sociability, and some of this will be genetic in origin. But the relevance of these facts to any individual criminal case is far from clear. Indeed, the genetics wouldn’t matter in any case; there could just as easily be irreversible developmental damage that had rendered some individual impossible to socialize but was in no way genetic in origin.

    By your own admission, upthread, you don’t want to apply your “Some Kids Are Irredeemable Bad Apples” hypothesis to this case. Presumably, this is because you would concede that some disastrously destructive kids aren’t irredeemable, and this might be one of them. But given that, what does all your content-free hand-waving about “a roll of the dice” have to do with the criminal justice system? Everyone agrees that some people exist who should never be released into society, after all. For all your belligerence, you don’t appear to have anything different to say on the matter.

  15. Malcolm – Yes, I’ve taken Evolutionary biology – it’s on the shelf across from my computer:
    “Evolutionary Biology – Douglas Futuyma”
    I was talking about ethics not biology. There is a difference.

  16. (Warren): “you are, to put it mildly, full of it. Yes, there will be variability in intelligence and in sociability, and some of this will be genetic in origin.
    So, no factual dispute. Why, then, “full of it”?
    (Warren): “ But the relevance of these facts to any individual criminal case is far from clear.
    Did anyone say it was clear? Why, then, “full of it”?
    (Warren): “Indeed, the genetics wouldn’t matter in any case; there could just as easily be irreversible developmental damage that had rendered some individual impossible to socialize but was in no way genetic in origin.
    This establishes that other factors could matter as well, not that genetics don’t matter. So, why “full of it”?
    (Warren): “By your own admission, upthread, you don’t want to apply your ‘Some Kids Are Irredeemable Bad Apples’ hypothesis to this case.”
    Sane laws apply to generalities, including generalities about human behavior, including behavior with a strong genetic link. I’m not a fan of the insanity defense or any defense based on “couldn’t help himself because of ___” (Twinkies, childhood abuse, genetics. Fill in the blank). Whether any particular consideration applies to any specific case is impossible to say; “cause” and “risk factor” are statistical generalizations.

    (Warren): “Presumably, this is because you would concede that some disastrously destructive kids aren’t irredeemable, and this might be one of them. But given that, what does all your content-free hand-waving about “a roll of the dice” have to do with the criminal justice system?
    Why “content-free”, if you have not disputed any factual point?
    There are “pragmatic justifications” for incarceration of some violent offenders and some others, like Bernie Madoff, of any age. Incarceration of those whom an improved penal system cannot reform (likely, most sociopaths) confers benefits as well as costs.

  17. Malcolm, you’re going on and on about some people falling at the extreme low end of the population distribution. The logical inference is that in some way you feel this observation has something to do with this thread, and yet you concede it does not. The only conclusion I can draw is that you’re one of those people who likes to expound at some length about some other people being inferior to themselves. Add to this the fact that you’ve brought genetics into your tirades about inferior people, even though invoking genetics adds nothing to your argument, and a distinctly unlovely whiff of eugenics or perhaps of racism enters the room.

  18. (Warren): “The logical inference is that in some way you feel this observation has something to do with this thread, and yet you concede it does not.
    It does…
    (Harold): “Possessing … surging hormones, and limited tools for impulse control, for thinking about the future, or for resolving conflict, some teenagers are genuinely dangerous…
    Strong genetic links all around, I expect.
    (Harold): “…Some face the onset of serious psychiatric disorders…
    Strong known evidence for genetic links.
    (Harold): “…Some are involved in communuty or gang-related violence. Some must be locked up to protect themselves and others.
    …Which looks to me like a…
    (Harold): “…pragmatic justification for policies which impose life sentences on a 14-year-old child who commits a stupid and impulsive crime.“So I don’t make that concession. It’s a consideration, but it’s not decisive. It’s a “pragmatic justification”, okay?
    (Warren): “…a distinctly unlovely whiff of eugenics…
    Well, incarcerating males through early-to-middle adulthood will have that effect.
    (Warren): “… or perhaps of racism…
    Join the JournoList, …

    In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.
    And I think this threads the needle. If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them–Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares–and call them racists.

    You’re in good (ahem) company: Harold Pollack, Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Zasloff. It’s old, and stale.

  19. If anybody is interested in data here, look up recent English cases of child killers: Mary Bell and Venables and Thompson. The three were all aged aged 10 when they committed the murders.
    The English sentences were the rarely used “detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure”, an indefinite sentence which gives the executive practically complete discretion over time served. In practice, the juvenile killers served 12 years (Bell) and 8 years (Venables and Thompson). Bell and Thompson stayed out of trouble after release; Venables was charged with drugs and child pornography offences, but not violence. Of course, risk of reoffending is not the only consideration in such cases – retribution argues for more jail time, the reduced responsibility of a child for less. What is certain is that the English prison system gave the children, very expensively, every chance of rehabilitation; and the law has effectively protected their privacy after release against vigilantes and the tabloids.

  20. Doretta says: “No one has suggested that 14-year-olds who kill people should “get off” but that with help and time many, probably most, of them can grow into people who are not a danger to society.”

    Evidence given? None.

    (And James Wimberly’s single anecdote about three English killers under 10 years old doesn’t say anything about “most” people who killed when they were 13 or 14. By that standard, we could prove every 13 year old killer’s dangerousness by citing a single example of someone who killed at 13, then was released and eventually killed again. I don’t think you want to play that game.)

  21. Thanks, James. I was going to suggest that we did not have enough material disagreement for a real argument.
    (James): “What is certain is that the English prison system gave the children, very expensively, every chance of rehabilitation…
    Yah. Adults could use this also. How? That’s a matter for experiment. We could also experiment (federalism!) with policies which reduce effects of risk factors like compulsory school attendance.
    (James): “…and the law has effectively protected their privacy after release against vigilantes and the tabloids.
    Hard to do that, however, without putting the public at risk. Who gets to weigh the offender’s interests against the interests of his new neighbors?

  22. Malcolm I just saw that Journolist comment. I comppletely disagree with the quotation. Hold individuals accountable for our own statements and beliefs, not intemperate comments made by others.

  23. You say: “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.”

    I have to ask what kind of world you inhabit. It’s certainly not the same one I live in.

    Just to establish my cred, I worked for years with at-risk youth. I spent over a decade working with maximum security prison inmates as a volunteer visitor (non-religious) and done plenty of visits with juveniles in custody. So I actually know what I’m talking about when I tell you that some kids are simply broken. So broken that there is essentially zero chance of them becoming unbroken. I’m sorry to disabuse you but we have no cure for the sociopath. No amount of hugs or counseling or anything else gives these people the ability to think long-term, grasp consequences not immediately in their face or feel pain on behalf of another human. The best we can do is lock these people away FOREVER so they don’t get a second chance to kill someone.

    I can introduce you to two 14-year-olds here who killed an entire family of four as part of a gang crime meant to impress their friends. Man, Wife, the 12-year-old they knew and the 6-y/o hiding under the bed they stabbed and bludgeoned to death. Those two need to NEVER be on the streets again. There is no way to rehabilitate some people.

    It doesn’t matter one bit WHY they became this way. A huge amount of it comes from being drug or alcohol affected while in the womb. I could introduce you to scores of kids with behavior problems stemming from this. But letting people out based solely on the basis of age at the time of the crime is just stupid. It’s willful ignorance of fact. Go work in some U.S. maximum security prisons for a few years and then get back to me on how everyone can be rehabilitated. They can’t. Some people will grown out of criminality, some will get tired of the results of criminal behavior, some will get religion, some will just decide to turn their lives around. But that’s not the case for a disturbing number of folks. These are the guys who need to NEVER get out. And age at the time of the crime is not and should not be the primary motivator behind the sentence. The seriousness and brutality of the crime should be the main factor. Because if you let some of these people out, they absolutely WILL re-offend. Then you can plead your sob-story about compassion and social justice to the victim’s family. -No thanks.

  24. So there we were, playing the most intense bridge in gazebo, enjoying our tea with lemon and cucumber sandwiches on white bread with the crust cut away, when someone drives a Abrams tank straight across the croquet lawn, makes doughnuts on the polo pitch, and departs through the hedgerow.

  25. (Harold): “Hold individuals accountable for our own statements and beliefs, not intemperate comments made by others.
    I would not call Ackerman’s advice “intemperate” but rather, “cold blooded”. However, your point stands.

    OTOH…

    ‘Twas an evening in October, I’ll confess I wasn’t sober,
    I was carting home a load with manly pride,
    When my feet began to stutter and I fell into the gutter,
    And a pig came up and lay down by my side.
    Then I lay there in the gutter and my heart was all a-flutter,
    Till a lady, passing by, did chance to say:
    “You can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses,”
    Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.

    Politicians have the excuse that their profession requires association with masses of people they will never know. What’s yours? JournoList was deliberate and voluntary. As was the letter in opposition to the Ryan plan. Michael Meeropol? Really?

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