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Teens locked up for life without a second chance - Should minors be given life sentences?

Posted by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 10:47 AM
  • 17 Replies

Story Highlights

  • At least 73 inmates serve life without parole for offenses committed at 13 and 14
  • Proponents of tough sentencing laws say public safety is top priority
  • Only 19 states punish minors under 14 with sentences of life without parole
  • "They took away all hope for the future," says Quantel Lotts, now 23
  •  

    (CNN) -- It began as horseplay, with two teenage stepbrothers chasing each other with blow guns and darts. But it soon escalated when one of the boys grabbed a knife.

    Quantel Lotts is shown at age 12, two years before he committed the crime that sent him to prison for life.

    Quantel Lotts is shown at age 12, two years before he committed the crime that sent him to prison for life.

    The older teen, Michael Barton, 17, was dead by the time he reached the hospital. The younger boy, Quantel Lotts, 14, would eventually become one of Missouri's youngest lifers.

    Lotts was sentenced in Missouri's St. Francois County Circuit Court in 2002 to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder in his stepbrother's stabbing death.

    It made no difference that at the time of the deadly scuffle, Lotts was barely old enough to watch PG-13 movie and too young to drive, vote or buy beer.

    "They locked me up and threw away the keys," Lotts, now 23, said from prison. "They took away all hope for the future."

    Lotts is one of at least 73 U.S. inmates -- most of them minorities -- who were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Alabama that defends indigent defendants and prisoners.

    The 73 are just a fraction of the more than 2,000 offenders serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors under the age of 18.

    Across the country, most juvenile offenders and many adults are given a second chance. Charles Manson, convicted in seven notorious murders committed when he was 27, will be eligible for his 12th parole hearing in 2012. He's been denied parole 11 times. Even "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz, who confessed to killing six people in the 1970s when he was in his 20s, has had four parole hearings, though he has said he doesn't deserve parole and doesn't want it.

    But Quantel Lotts has no hope for a parole hearing. At least not yet. See which states have sentenced minors to life without parole »

    Lotts is part of a trend that has developed over the past two decades. Numerous studies have shown that In the 1970s and 1980s, minors were rarely given life sentences, let alone life without parole, experts said. By the early 1990s, according to the Department of Justice, an alarming spike in juvenile homicides spawned a nationwide crackdown, including a movement to try kids in adult courts.

    Lifers by the Numbers

    · 2,225: Inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed as minors

    · 42: States that allow life without parole for minors

    · 14: States that have no minimum age for life sentences

    · 73: Documented cases of minors serving life without parole for crimes committed as 13-, 14-year-olds

    · 44: States that passed laws between 1992 and 1997 making it easier try minors as adults


    Sources: Human Rights Watch, Equal Justice Initiative, National Conference of State Legislatures, U.S. Department of Justice

    "Criminal court doesn't care they are kids," said Melissa Sickmund, chief of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "Once they are there, it's just another case."

    Today, there are only a handful of states -- including Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oregon -- that prohibit sentencing minors to life without parole, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

    Proponents of the strict sentencing laws said public safety should be top priority. They argued that judges give certain criminals, regardless of their age, life sentences because the crimes are so abhorrent.

    "There are some people who are so fundamentally dangerous that they can't walk among us," said Jennifer Jenkins, who co-founded the National Organization for Victims of Juvenile Lifers. The Illinois-based group fights legislation that would remove sentences of life without parole.

    In the past three years, attorneys at the Equal Justice Initiative have appealed cases involving 13- and 14-year-old offenders in state and federal court. Attorneys argue that the sentences are "cruel and unusual punishment" given the tender years of the offenders. Read the center's report

    Only 19 states punish children under 14 with life sentences without parole, according to a study conducted by the center.

    Last week, the state of Missouri dismissed Quantel Lotts' case in St. Francois County Circuit Court. The Equal Justice Initiative will challenge the decision in the Missouri Court of Appeals. A separate petition, filed in 2007, is pending in federal court in the Eastern District of Missouri.

    Lotts remains in prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri, and he is hopeful. He has new dreams of going to college and maybe even becoming a lawyer.

    "My family motivates me," he explained. "Because I want to be out there with them so I can never get up."

    He wishes he could start over, but not at the beginning. He grew up in a crack house with a mother who used and sold drugs. In Lotts' case, court documents reveal that he was sexually abused as a child.

    When child welfare officials took Lotts from his mother at the age of 8, they noted that he "smelled of urine and had badly decayed molars as well as numerous scars on his arms, legs and forehead."

    "Quantel had a lot of anger because of all he has been through," said stepmother Tammy Lotts, 45, whose son Michael Barton was Lotts' victim.

    At the time of the crime, Tammy Lotts said she left her children for several days with her husband to get high on crack cocaine.

    "But I don't believe that Quantel did it," she added. "They took care of each other. They didn't see each other as stepbrothers; they considered them brothers."

    Most young offenders serving life without parole were exposed to poverty, violence or drugs during childhood, the Equal Justice Initiative reported.

    Some victims' families say that's exactly why the juveniles should stay locked up.

    "They will come back to my community and your community and repeat," said Harriet Salerno, president of Crime Victims United of California, a group trying to block the passage of laws that would ease sentencing for juveniles.

    She founded the victim's group after her daughter, a pre-medical student, was murdered at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California in the 1979. "Many of them have dysfunctional homes, and the crimes will escalate because there is no place to put them."

    Two cases where juvenile offenders got life without parole didn't even involve murder.

    Antonio Nunez was 14 when he given life without parole for an armed kidnapping that occurred in 2001. He spent his childhood in a gang-ridden neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, California. He was shot in the stomach multiple times while riding his bike at age 13. See stories of other inmates who were sentenced to life in prison without parole »

    In Florida, Joe Sullivan, who case will be heard soon by the U.S. Supreme Court, was sentenced to life without parole for 1989 rape of an elderly woman. He was 13 at the time and is mentally disabled.

    In 2005, groups that opposed life sentences without parole for young people, began to gain traction after the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for crimes committed by 16 and 17 year olds in the landmark case Roper v. Simmons.

    A year later, Colorado abolished life without parole for minors who commit crimes. At the federal level, Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Virginia, will introduce legislation this year to give youthful offenders the option of parole. In California, Democratic Sen. Leland Yee has proposed a law that grants young offenders a chance at parole after ten years.

    "Children aren't just little adults, and it's starting to resonate with people," said Ashley Nellis, an analyst at the Sentencing Project, a research organization tracking sentencing patterns. "There has been a general momentum of changing juvenile law in the last few years."

    Nearly a decade later, Lotts, now a grown man, still cries himself to sleep over the loss of his stepbrother. To ease the pain, he reads novels or listens to the tunes of R&B group Dru Hill.

    One sleepless night in prison, Lotts found himself reading the book "Lightning" by Dean Koontz. The novel, about time travel, has become one of his favorites. He often thinks about what it would be like to turn back time.

    "This would have never happened," he said. "My brother would be here today."

    by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 10:47 AM
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    Replies (1-10):
    morningdove831
    by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 10:50 AM

    I think it really depends on the seriousness of the offense.  Even young teens know that murder is wrong.  And if they don't, then they have a serious problem. 

        

    canthaveboys1
    by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 10:52 AM

    Well at first my reaction was if they do the crime they should do the time. Really though I guess it depends on what they did. I think that 13 is old enough to know better stabbing someone. I dont think records should be sealed either because if they comit a crime and that cant be brought up to show a repeat offender they may not get the punishment that they deserve.  

    JanMarie225
    by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 11:02 AM


    Quoting canthaveboys1:

    Well at first my reaction was if they do the crime they should do the time. Really though I guess it depends on what they did. I think that 13 is old enough to know better stabbing someone. I dont think records should be sealed either because if they comit a crime and that cant be brought up to show a repeat offender they may not get the punishment that they deserve.  

    I agree 110%. Anyone remember the Terry King case in Florida where the 2 brothers, Alex and Derek, bashed their father's head in with a baseball bat and set the house on fire? Alex got out last year and Derek, the one who actually swung the bat, will be getting out this May. Not sure if their records will be sealed but since the story made nat'l news and the trial was televised, it may not matter. I was a friend of Ricky Chavis, the guy who hid them and got the book thrown at him (30 yrs for accesory after the fact). Tell me how that's fair?

    nj_pa_girl
    by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 11:20 AM

    This is a tough one. I think he should have one chance of parole at this age. No matter if he gets out or not, his life is screwed.

    I have 5 kids and the 3 older one's (26-F, 25-M, 24-M) have been raised as inner city kids and never played like that. They do not even speak as if they grew up in a low income section

                                                                      

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    sassyandy124
    by Bronze Member on Apr. 8, 2009 at 2:10 PM

         I believe that if they do an adult crime, they should do adult time. I also believe very firmly, that some kids ARE born 'bad'. They are born without /or with a severely impaired the ability to feel empathy and emotions. Unfortunately there is nothing you can do with people like that. There is no 'rehabilitaion'.

    Godgaveme4
    by Platinum Member on Apr. 8, 2009 at 3:53 PM

    "They took away all hope for the future."

    I found this statement very interesting.  I read this and hear a man not taking responsibity for his actions. He was not just picked up off the street anf thrown in jail for life.  He commited a crime.  He is the ONLY person to blame for his situation and where he is now.  I realize that may sound harsh.

    I raise my children to know the difference between right and wrong and to take responsibity for their actions.  It is a hard lesson. 

    So yes I believe minors should be put away for life if the crime calls for it.

    Dzyre1115
    by Gold Member on Apr. 8, 2009 at 3:58 PM

    Children, especially boys are not capable of foreseeing the end result of their immediate actions, so a life sentence is not a fair sentence.  I think children who commit offenses that would warrant a life sentence should be jailed, educated and rehabilitated, separately from normal criminals until they turn 30.  I think you would find that the majority of the offenders if kept away from general population inmates would turn out to be productive members of society and be able to move past their history. 

    canthaveboys1
    by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 3:58 PM


    Quoting JanMarie225:

     

    Quoting canthaveboys1:

    Well at first my reaction was if they do the crime they should do the time. Really though I guess it depends on what they did. I think that 13 is old enough to know better stabbing someone. I dont think records should be sealed either because if they comit a crime and that cant be brought up to show a repeat offender they may not get the punishment that they deserve.  

    I agree 110%. Anyone remember the Terry King case in Florida where the 2 brothers, Alex and Derek, bashed their father's head in with a baseball bat and set the house on fire? Alex got out last year and Derek, the one who actually swung the bat, will be getting out this May. Not sure if their records will be sealed but since the story made nat'l news and the trial was televised, it may not matter. I was a friend of Ricky Chavis, the guy who hid them and got the book thrown at him (30 yrs for accesory after the fact). Tell me how that's fair?

    In the town I live in now just a few years ago this kid 15 y/o and 3 of his friends ages 14-16 y/o stabbed to death his adoptive father. Than him and his friends hid the body in a crawlspace and left him there for about 3 months. The neighbors had to do a well being check for the adult and found him. He knew what he was doing, especially since he cleaned it up. They all got sentanced to juvenile detention until they hit 21 and will be released.

    Yeah thats justice stick him with the rest of us in a few years and see if he just feels like it again. (sarcasm intended) I dont think it was enough.

    pride4mom
    by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 4:33 PM
    My opinion is UNTIL parents are held more responsible for the actions of their children,NO, I don't think any child should be locked away with out a second chance...To make tougher penalities for adults would make more sense to me.....A child don't just walk in on day and kill their parents,so before this happens,hold the parents accountable for what the children are doing...What a lot of parents don't even take the time to find out about their children in so many families the parents give the child money thinking the problem will go away? Maybe, but the problem may come back with a gun to kill that parent with. Kids need parents not their money. So many parents think its more important to work 2 or 3 jobs to have the bigger and better when the children will say "I would gladly give the extra's to have mom and dad home once in a while." But parents don't listen to the child until its to late......JMO....Angel
    mamawmom
    by on Apr. 8, 2009 at 8:19 PM

    IN THE CASE MENTIONED IN THE STORY I THINK HE SHOULD BE GIVEN A CHANCE.IT DEPENDS ON THE CIRCUMSTANCE.THERE HAVE BEEN A LOT OF WORSE MURDERERS RELEASED AFTER JUST A FEW YEARS.I DONT THINK THE SYSTEM IS FAIR TO EACH AND EVERY ONE.SOMETIMES IT DEPENDS ON WHO YOU ARE OR WHO YOU KILL,NOT ON THE CRIME. 

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