Monday, February 14, 2011

Our Youngest Lifers – Disposable Children

Quick, a question: What does the United States of America have in common with the African nation of Somalia?

Answer: They are the only countries to refuse to sign Article 37 of the 1989 UN document entitled, “Rights of the Child.”

What’s that mean? Translated, it means America stands shoulder-to -shoulder with a primitive East African nation in routinely refusing to acknowledge the rights of children. And, America is also the only known nation in the world that allows children under the age of 18 to be tried as adults and sentenced to prison forever–with absolutely no chance for parole. In a majority of U.S. cases the child is charged with murder but sometimes they have simply been in the company of someone else who committed murder.

Hey, wait a minute!

Aren’t we the country that touts our progressive stand on human rights? Isn’t America the nation that cajoles others–Egypt being the latest example – for unreasonable treatment and imprisonment of citizens? Yep, that’s us. So, how do we possibly explain the more than 2,574 inmates currently in U.S. prisons who were sent there as children and who will remain there for the rest of their lives? (By the way, the undisputed figure of 2,574 comes from the latest Human Rights Watch annual report.)

Is it okay with you that we, as a society, routinely toss kids into the deep end of the adult pool of criminal defendants? Understand that upon conviction they are, in effect, lost forever – thrown away as disposable kids–in a prison system that will surely expose them to sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners and turn them hard and mean forever.

Every mental health expert will tell you a child’s brain isn’t fully developed–specifically, in the areas that control decision making, risk taking and impulse control. We’ve learned these young kids kill for a variety of reasons including prolonged emotional or physical/sexual abuse, brain damage or mental illness sustained during gestation from their addicted mother or a perceived threat to their way of life that their young brain cannot accept.

So when they kill are they really responsible for their behavior?

To be sure, there are some under the age of 18–vicious teen-aged members of street gangs–who are keenly aware of their actions and who richly deserve to be locked away to protect society. But many of the defendants within that group of 2,574 aren’t like that at all and some are single digit young. One boy in Arizona was just 8 when he took a gun and blasted ten bullets into his father and a male tenant in their home. The state is still trying to figure out what made that child snap. The boy pleaded guilty and the state ordered him to undergo psychiatric evaluations, a great step, in my opinion. However, if he doesn’t respond this boy could still be sentenced to hard time.

Coming up soon in the Pennsylvania court system is young Jordan Brown. He shot and killed his father’s pregnant girlfriend as she lay sleeping so Jordan was deemed a double murderer at just 11 years old. The judge in the case has declared that since the boy has expressed no real remorse he must be tried as an adult. Jordan will likely become the youngest offender in American history to be sentenced to LWOP – life in prison without parole.

Quantel Lotts was 14 years old when got that sentence in 2002 in St. Francois County, Missouri. What started as horseplay with his older stepbrother later turned deadly when Lott impulsively grabbed a knife. He was tried as an adult for first degree murder with predictable results. Quantel will live the rest of his life behind the bars of a prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri.

In many states judges have no discretion in sentencing adult defendants. Take a life and you get LWOP–period.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the late '80s, children were seldom prosecuted in adult court settings. Their fates were determined by juvenile courts which many believed were much better equipped to deal with these minor’s unique problems and get them psychiatric help. But the system often simply set the offender free at age 21 providing little or none of the security net they had come to rely upon. That scared folks and somewhere along the line it became easier to just lock up these kids and throw away the key.

California’s notorious Charles Manson, found guilty of seven murders, gets his 12th parole hearing next year. New York’s “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz, who admitted to killing six people when he was in his 20s has had four parole hearings so far. The system may never grant a reprieve to either of them but at least they got a chance. Meantime, at least 2,574 American kids will never get that–not even if they can prove they found true redemption and direction in prison.

There’s got to be a better way to keep ourselves safe while at the same time administering to the needs of our troubled kids. Any ideas?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think its a disgusting practice. No child should EVER be considered an adult. And yes, they should be receiving mental health treatment. Not prison with hardened criminals (adults) - If at 21 they are still deemed dangerous? Then a psych hospital is where they should be taken.