Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A Life Behind Bars

When I was younger, I was leery not just of the death penalty, but life without parole. When you're 14, the idea of being locked away for life seems potentially crueler than the death penalty, because when you're 14 life feels timeless -- like it will go on forever. Which makes the prison sentence also forever. And it ran contrary to my optimistic views about persons -- that they can reform and become healthy members of society.

It never really occurred to me that children would face that fate. But some kids are living my nightmare -- locked away for life for crimes (generally, but not always, murders) they committed as young as 14. Most of the kids are poor, most of the kids are people of color. Many come from appalling family and social backgrounds. The proponents of keeping them behind bars literally for their entire adult life consider this to be an argument in their favor: "Many of them have dysfunctional homes, and the crimes will escalate because there is no place to put them," argued one advocate. This, to me, is unbelievably heartless.

Kids aren't mini-adults. Even when a teenager commits an adult crime -- even when they're charged as adults, they're still not adults. America seems to have abandoned the goal of rehabilitating criminals. I don't think it can ethically do so when the subject is child offenders.


S said...

First, I agree wholeheartedly with everything you wrote. No 13 or 14 year-old should be sentenced to LWOP. It's shameful that we allow it to happen.

Second, yay Carleton College! I went there, too.

George Vreeland Hill said...

No excuses!
Don't like the time?
Don't do the crime!
If you kill, then you must pay.
No one cares if you are 14 or 40.
You know right from wrong when it comes to killing another person.
No pity.
I am,

George Vreeland Hill

S said...

Seriously, George? You knew right from wrong when you were 14? You understood long-term consequences when you were 14? You had complete control over your decisions and judgment when you were 14? I know better than that, because your brain wasn't fully developed. The medical evidence is clear that critical brain functions that control impulse, decision-making, critical thinking (which enables us to consider long-term consequences), etc., don't develop until our later teen years, even into our 20s.

Did you read the CNN story? The first youngster profiled was roughhousing with his step-brother. The horseplay got out of control and the older brother wound up dead from knife wounds. Hardly makes the younger brother a hardened murderer, requiring a life in prison with no second chance.

Is there any age at which you might be willing to concede that the child (isn't a 14 year-old still a child? I frankly won't believe you if you say no) shouldn't be punished in the same way that we would punish an adult?

Anonymous said...

Having worked in juvenile corrections for many years, I got the opportunity to see what life is like on the inside for juvenile offenders. Many times the children came from broken homes with no structure, morals, or ethics being infused into their lives. They barely had schooling (because they chose not to go, and were not forced to go), and no role models. Early childhood and adolesence are the critical years for when children should be learning basics such as right from wrong and things of the such. It was depressing to look at the statistics of repeat offenders we had, especially when our mission statement commanded us to rehabilitate those children. Not only are parents failing, but teachers, and the State and Federal Institutions also fail to do their part in coaching these children and reprimanding them when wrong.

At no point am I condoning murder, but after reading this brief article in which we're missing key details, my mind wanders to how this young man could receive life in prison without the possibility of parole, when they were both mutually hoarse-playing (doesn't seem pre-meditated). Not only that, but reading (again a brief description), of this childs history, it doesn't sound like growing up, he received the fundamental values that are essential, so he views on fact and fiction became skewed. He may not have a diagnosable mental disability, but its a fact that socially he is crippled by the environment that he called home for so long. That fact should have definitely been considered by the judge and jury during his trial. He probably had a public defender, who had no major stake in winning his case or not, there for, didn't wasn't inclined to have Lott's best interest at heart anyway.

Finally, this country is in a terrible financial situation. The cost to care for someone for LIFE, is tremendous. After all, they get food, housing, schooling, and medical attention all at the cost of the tax payer, for sounds like a free ride, which is unfair on my pocket, considering I didn't commit the crime. The problem lies within the judicial system and the rehabilitation process, there are ways to prepare children and non-violent offenders to re-enter society so that they can be productive.

S said...

I can't let that comment about a public defender not having the child's best interests at heart go. As a public defender, I can assure you that I ALWAYS have my client's best interests at heart. Of course there are some who are lazy and might not fight that hard, just as there are some private attorneys who are lazy and uncaring. But the vast, vast majority of public defenders are committed to their clients and their mission and are doing the best they can with their huge caseloads and limited resources.

Anonymous said...

The public defender comment wasn't really the gist of this issue. The major issue is that this kids life hangs in the balance due to a failed justice system.

I wasn't accusing all public defenders of not taking their jobs and oaths seriously, but in my experiences with them, they don't out perform many of the paid lawyers. Its just my opinion, not a fact.

Anonymous said...

And I commend you, and your efforts to do the best you can given your resources!! I also believe that many of your efforts do go unnoticed, because you're stretched so thin with extremely large case loads. (that only goes for legitimate hard working lawyers, both public and private servants) Based on the news article, it should be clear that Lott's sentence was too harsh, considering his age factor, and the circumstances that led to the stabbing.