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Are Teens or Juveniles Sentenced as Adult "Lifers" Treated Properly by the Justice System?

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on April 08, 2009 1:56 PM

A CNN story published today raises the issue of how teens, sometimes as young as 13 or 14 years old, who commit serious offenses can become "lifers" sentenced to live out the rest of their days in prison.

The case of Quantel Lotts, now 23 years old, was highlighted in the piece and described as follows:

"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.

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."

The debate is nothing new, with proponents of tough sentences arguing that they serve important goals in both deterring, and preventing, future crime. In addition, they claim "judges give certain criminals, regardless of their age, life sentences because the crimes are so abhorrent."

On the other hand, opponents argue that the strict sentences are excessive, perhaps illegal, and affect minorities and the poor disproportionately. One study conducted by the Equal Justice Initiative concluded that:

"Condemning young children to die in prison is cruel and incompatible with fundamental standards of decency that require protection for children. These sentences undermine the efforts of parents, teachers, lawyers, activists, legislators, policymakers, judges, child advocates, clergy, students, and ordinary citizens to ensure the well-being of young children in our society and they feed the despair and violence that traumatizes too many of our communities and young people."

The Supreme Court has taken on the issue indirectly, ruling in 2005 that imposing the death penalty on individuals under the age of 18 is unconstitutional. Of course, those in favor of abolishing life sentences for teens would point to the decision as providing a legal basis for doing so. Indeed much of the legal reasoning for invalidating the death penalty for juveniles could arguably apply to a sentence requiring the same juvenile to die in prison.

But, at the same time, the Supreme Court and others have generally stuck to the position that, in essence, "death is different" in the amount of scrutiny such sentences receive. Indeed, the same juvenile whose death sentence was overturned in 2005 instead had life in prison without the possibility of parole imposed on him. For this reason, comparing the constitutionality of life in prison versus death sentences may be problematic. Instead, the issue could very well end up being one for state legislators to consider, or reconsider, as a matter of policy.

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