Our Youngest Lifers – Disposable Children

by Diane Dimond on February 7, 2011

America Locks Up Children Forever

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!

One of the 2,574 U.S. Kids in Prison - Without Hope of Parole

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.

Kids Brains Aren't Like Adults

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.

Jordan Brown, an 11 Year Old Murderer

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.

Quantel Lotts-Victim of Parental Neglect and Abuse

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 80’s 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.

Manson Gets a Dozen Parole Chances - Fair?

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 20’s 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?

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane February 7, 2011 at 9:40 am

Facebook Friend Seema Kalia writes:

“Horrifying. How did I not know this happened?”


Diane February 7, 2011 at 9:41 am

Because no body else is writing about these crime and justice issues, Seema! I wish Americans would spend more time thinking about the consequences of our system. Maybe its the best that can be done. But maybe not!


Diane February 7, 2011 at 9:43 am

Facebook Friend David Wohl writes:

“Want to talk about the horrific crimes they committed to get that Sentence?”


Diane February 7, 2011 at 9:44 am

Yes, David! That’s a great point! What in the world causes an 8 year old to blow away his dad and another man? Or a kid who puts a shotgun to the belly of a sleeping, pregnant woman and takes two lives?? Horrible crimes – is there anything we can do to stop them from happening??


Diane February 7, 2011 at 9:45 am

Facebook Friend Nancy Kiley Erickson writes:

“Tragic any way you look at it, Diane”


Diane February 7, 2011 at 9:47 am

ABQ Journal Reader Silvo Dell’Angela writes:

“Intent of your article was good but essentials/specifics were missing. Sorry but your message could have been more credible if you didn’t generalize-extrapolate so much-compared apples and oranges.
It’s not just not the kids in gangs who kill but also the smart ones who later claim to a lawyer they were abused or had less than perfect parents to excuse killing. Many kids are abused or have less than perfect lives but they don’t kill. Did you have a “perfect” childhood with perfect parents?
You never said how many of the 2574 were “children” in the 16-18 year group vs. the 8 or 11 year olds-the examples/exceptions that you chose to cite to try to support your argument. You claim that “every” mental health expert will tell you a child’s brain isn’t fully developed …” Really? Even one in the 16-18 year old? How developed do they really have to be and what brain development data supports/condones irrational behavior-killing? Too much permissiveness in our society today-always looking for reasons to excuse every crime by a child who you feel should be as much as 18 years old.
Men and women can join the military service at 18. Should they be banned because their brain “isn’t fully developed” according to “every mental expert?” At what point is a brain fully developed and why does it have to be in order to make responsible kill or no kill decisions?
You write well but you missed the mark this time with your generalizations and particularly with your reference to UN Article 37 and guilt trip comparison with Somalia. That was shameful. Give your readers a little more credit for intelligence.”
Your other articles were generally on target-good-but you needed to give this one more thought before it was released for printing.


Diane February 7, 2011 at 10:47 am

Mr. Dell’Angela:
America seems to be so unaware of this situation – that there are 2,474 children who’ve been sentenced to live out the rest of their days in prison – that research is scant. I didn’t fail to mention the exact ages the defendants were when sentenced – its that no one has bothered to compile that kind of information. Sad on its face.
I feel you missed the point of this column. Its that we have tiny ticking time bombs – AND WE SHOULD FIGURE OUT WHY. Because once we do that we’re that much closer to figuring out how to stop kids who kill before they act.
The 18 year old who is mature enough to join the military service is NOT the type this column was highlighting. It was about the 8, and 11 and 14 year olds who “every mental health expert” WILL tell you do not possess the maturity to rationalize their deadly actions.
Sorry if you don’t agree – but labeling my inclusion of the fact that only America and Somalia failed to sign the UN document on the rights of children as “shameful” – gets us no closer to solving the problem of kids who kill.


Diane February 7, 2011 at 9:49 am

Facebook Friend Morgan Roebuck writes:

“Considering they would find themselves at the end of a rope in dozens of other countries, 60 years of free room and board might not be that bad for the troubled lil’ scamps.”


Diane February 7, 2011 at 10:01 am

Facebook Friend Linda Gillespie writes:

” No suggestions about what to do with them but isn’t it time to seriously address the issue of why they are so violent???”


Diane February 7, 2011 at 10:01 am

Yes! Linda – you are talking ‘THE’ topic I’d hoped people would come away with on this. What is causing these kids to snap at such a young age? Availability of guns? TV violence which makes them immune to the consequences? Sexual or physical abuse at home?
Until we figure THAT out I’m afraid the number 2,574 will simply grow.
Thanks for writing! ~ DD


Diane February 7, 2011 at 10:50 am

Facebook Friend Darcy Fowler writes:

We get angry when children get slapped on the hand for crimes they commit.I believe that kids who are tried as adults there is a reason for it.There are children i am sure that commit the same type of crimes that are not tried as adults.The crimes that i believe children should be held accountable as adults are murder,rape and armed robbery.But I do not believe they should be put into a jail or prison with 18 and over people until they are 18 because of the things that could happen to them in jail or prison.
From what i read of the report The Rest of Their Lives: Life without Parole for Child Offenders in the United States, 59 percent of the kids that got LWOP it was their 1st offense and that was from a 2 yr study through mid 2004.”


Diane February 7, 2011 at 11:45 am

DD Web Site Reader Rwainston writes of the question -“Is it okay with you that we have 2,574 kids in prison for life?”

“No, I don’t believe it is. Do you? There’s something else going on in their lives to cause such behavior. Some may be “ill”, psychiatricly speaking, and thus potentially very dangerous, but my guess is a substantial number of these kids are abused and know no other way out.”


Darcy Fowler February 7, 2011 at 11:56 am

I understand that people always want to come up with a reason why people commit horrific crimes. I am not sure if it is because people do NOT want to believe a child does just because they are evil.People blame parents ,tv video games etc.To me that has alot to do with kids thinking they can get away with crimes they commit because they see tv where everyone is blaming everyone and everything else except the child themselves.,just like women who commit crimes against their children people automatically try to find an excuse but when it is a man its always lock him up and throw away the key(how many of these men had juvenile records and should have been charged as an adult for the crime or crimes they committed and sentenced to LWOP) but never do i hear anyone trying to find a reason for why a man commits a crime


Rita February 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm

This is a brilliant topic. *How has this problem increased with the age of computers? I know parents who are AFRAID to put LIMITS on computer game time and content! PARENTS do NOT INSIST that the family have dinner together– WITHOUT gameboys/text messaging/TV!!!! These kids are BEGGING to be HEARD! Would 30 minutes every night at dinner be TOO MUCH to ask? The answer is EASY! Like dieting, the answer is EASY. NOBODY wants to do the work anymore! NOT for thier health/life and NOT for thier kids!


Rita February 7, 2011 at 2:15 pm

ADDENDUM. I did not answer the question posed. I only suggested a preventative method for the future. The solution for kids presently in jail……WOW! Perhaps a panel of judges from all walks of life and all parts of the country (rural, big city, suburban) can hash this one out. But, life in prison……NO way!!!


Mary February 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Obviously this needs to be dealt with, it’s wrong to throw a child in jail for life, however, and this is a huge however, the UN Rights of the Child isn’t a solution, Ms. Dimond. If you’ve perused that so called statement of “rights”, it does more to exploit and abuse children. Have you seen what are considered, “rights” within the UN document? It claims that children have a right to sexual “freedom”, which is double speak for a get out of jail free card for pedophiles, who can and do claim the child gave consent. Look at what’s happened in the countries that signed on to that so called “rights” accord. Tell us how protected children, minor children are in the countries who embraced that foul deception put forward by the same United Nations that sits in silence when Brazil, the Netherlands, and a whole slew of African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries have attempted to include pedophiles as a protected class of people, over and over again. Were it not for the remaining humane and decent countries putting their foot down, it would be considered a human rights violation to prosecute child molesters.

We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater by signing on to that accord, we need to craft legislation in the US to deal with young offenders. Please don’t sully your reputation by falling for the propaganda of those who demand the US give away more of our sovereignty to the UN. One only has to look at how that accord has been allowed to steal the innocence of children in countries that have signed on to it.


Victim of Teen Killer February 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm

I have a lot of respect for Diane and am already in touch with her personally to discuss this in more details, but there are some significant factual errors in this article that result from the glut of propaganda on the issue of teen kilers sentenced to life.

First, there is indeed a serious dispute on the numbers. A top legal expert in Washington DC named Charles Stimson did the definitive research on this issue of teen killers sentenced to life and found by an actual count of state attorneys generals own reports that the number is somewhere between 1300 and 1500. The reason that they are still not sure is because 6 states did not respond to the questionnaire. Human Rights Watch itself has admitted that it used estimates based on the number of 19 and 20 year olds in the system, hence the inaccuracy. Many enter the system at 18 and 19.

Second there is a real misunderstanding of the brain research and the international treaty issue in this column. I don’t want to take up too much space here, but urge folks to visit the website http://www.teenkillers.org which has the most extensive information on this issue in the nation.

The most important thing to remember is that every time an offender comes up for parole, the victims families are put through a re-traumatization that borders on torture. If an offender is too dangerous to ever release, as some of these cases of younger sociopaths clearly are, then to require them to go through a lifetime of agony in parole hearings simply transfers the life sentence from the guilty murderer to the innocent victims left behind.

We look forward to further dialogue with Diane and then will hope for an update column!


Diane February 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm

I sincerely thank you for calling my attention to your web site. Researching this issue was difficult as there was so little definitive information available. Some estimates of minors in prison for life without parole went as high as 7500 – but the figure I quoted from Human Rights Watch (2,574) appeared to be undisputed. My understanding in speaking with Human Rights Watch officials was that their figure may be under-estimated since some states don’t keep good statistics. A minor might enter the system at 15 or 17 – but after all the psych sessions and legal delays – not be tried and sentenced until they are 20 or 21 years old.
Bottom line: I hope no one takes from this column that I think young murderers should be let out of prison simply because of their age. That was never my intent. But, there must be a way for us to be able to identify these ticking time bomb children BEFORE they do damage to innocent people. ~ DD


Diane February 8, 2011 at 11:14 am

DD Web Site Reader (and member of Law Enforcement) Nancy Robel writes:

“Boy, Diane, you took some heat on this one. You don’t actually need a lot of facts to see what’s happening with some of our youth.
Look in the mirror, folks. Sure, I guess there’s an argument for “bad seeds” coming into the world, but in our line of work we see the products of our society’s priorities and often it’s not the children. Abuse, neglect, lack of good education, exposure to violence in video games and movies all influence a child’s psyche and numb the sensitivity to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong. Few are equipped with the skills to work through these exposures without professional assistance. And they are falling through the cracks, more than you know. Maybe most don’t go out and kill, but the exposures manifest themselves in depression, other attention getting crimes, abuse, dysfunctional relationships, an inability to hold a job and drug abuse. We must all take responsibility for what we are producing. If you want to know how well our society is doing, look at how we treat our children, as a whole. That’s our future we’re looking at and sometimes it ain’t pretty.”


Magilv February 9, 2011 at 4:16 am

Don’t believe everything you read or hear from Human Rights Watch. In California, Juvenile 16 up to 18 who committ a First Degree Brutal murder with Special Circumstances are the only juveniles who recieve a Life Without the Possibility of Parole Sentence (LWOP) and the judge still has the option to give them a 25 to life sentence. Under 16, they may receive 25 to life with enhancements not LWOP. AS you may know there is a big movement across the USA to take away LWOP sentences from Juveniles. Those who started this movement also want the legislation to be retroactive and guilty juveniles now serving LWOP for brutal murders would have a chance to be released. This is the biggest revicitmization and injustice to innocent victims and survivors. Call your legislators in California and ask them to Vote NO on SB9 if you have any concern for the innocent victim. Our loved ones are dead and gone forever…they don’t get a chance to be paroled. For THE TRUTH & Victim’s stories go to http://www.teenkillers.org


Diane February 16, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Huffington Post Reader Colah writes:

“Any ideas?
How about getting a grasp on exactly what you are talking about. I would like to see what you have to say on the subject after living with some of the people in question. It wouldnt take long for you to realize the difference between real people & the paper statistics you have them confused with.
On a drug charge, I got to watch the murderers, rapists & child molesters for months on end & I can, with absolute surety, guarantee you that 99.99% of these individual­s are right where they need to be.
There was no age barrier. The 16 year-olds were just as adept at killing as the 46 year olds.

“But many of the defendants within that group of 2,574 aren’t like that at all,” seems to be your argument here.
Tell me specifical­ly how you are so sure that is true. “


Diane February 16, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Huffington Post Reader mcrochip writes:

” While there are certainly issues with the justice system in this country, making the comparison to Somalia is reprehensi­ble. The US has a unique role within the United Nations, and has never really considered itself subject to its authority.

The cases sited are very different from each other, and as such must be handled differentl­y. The case of an 8 year old boy in Arizona is subject to different laws and circumstan­ces then that of Jordan Brown in PA (he has not yet been tried, so the statement that he killed is wrong… allegedly is still correct, even if all the evidence points to him).

Overall, the biggest issue that comes up regarding LWOP is one of mandatory sentencing­, both for adults and juveniles. PA has an either/or system… either try in juvenile and lose jurisdicti­on on the 21st birthday, or try in adult court with an LWOP sentence. Ohio has a mixed system, allowing for (based on a recent case) a juvenile to be sentenced beyond 21 with some sort of transition to the adult system. Figure out how to manage these disparitie­s without infringing on states’ rights and the problem is alleviated somewhat. “


Diane February 16, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Huffington Post Reader HelloInThere writes:

“I firmly believe that prison sentences need to come with better psychiatri­c care for children and adults alike. Yet I see the point of prison as rehabilita­tion when possible and not strictly as punishment­.”


Diane February 16, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Huffington Post Reader Nicole Dixson writes:

” In some, but not all cases, the punishment truly fits. I believe there are some children under the age of 18 that probably cannot be redeemed. Why foist these people on society to continue the damage?”


Diane February 16, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Huffington Post Reader amake616 writes:

“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.”

Considerin­g you earlier listed quite a few very credible reasons why a child would commit murder I am deeply confused as to why you included this sentence. Some child gang members have probably become “past help” and need to be locked away for decades. Some are just as assuredly victims of abuse, broken homes, and lack of education themselves and deserve a second chance. Just as some suburban white kids become killers and are utter sociopaths who society needs to be protected from. I am perplexed as to why you chose to single out teenage gang banger­s as the sole kids who deserve to be locked forever, regardless of cause or circumstan­ce. That was a lazy sentence IMO. “


Diane February 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Huffington Post Reader Zelazny13 writes:

“Currently I represent 3 young men who received LWOP as juveniles and may possibly represent a fourth. All 4 have lost their appeals have have only a final shot at post-convi­ction relief. Here in Colorado I believe we have more juveniles doing LWOP than any other state. Our legislatur­e just “generousl­y” changed the law to life with parole after 40 calendar years, but it gives no relief to those with LWOP. For more sad facts check out pendulumfo­undation.c­om or watch the Frontline program “When Kids Get Life.” Thanks for the article. Colorado has the harshest criminal laws in America, although our jurors rarely vote for death, we have incredibly long sentences for virtually every crime (except those committed by rich people). “


Leonna A. Brandao, S.W. III March 7, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Dear Diane

I find this topic to be of great interest. Children, adolescents and even adults who are incarcerated are all mentally ill in some way or another. There is a separate story behind every incarceration which never really is heard. Yes of course, people judge and assume they are all hard core criminals which of course there is a population of such. However, this country and its righteous and of course its criminal justice system, do not look at each individual case as they should. Moreover, they stereotype and link them all together even as they throw them in cells with any other inmate without attempting to place them with compatible cell mates. I believe American justice is the worst in the world and this has been confirmed as we have the highest rates of incarceration, the highest rates of human rights’ violations and the only country in the world, whose sentencing guidelines are unrealistic and inhumane. Prisoners need a voice. They need to be evaluated by Mental Health Experts and not just someone hired by the DOC to look good on paper. Prisoners are commiting suicide, dying due to lack of appropriate medical and psychological treatment and prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for years on bogas misconducts, with no one even knowing about them and the abuses they are experiencing by prison staff. You have an awesome outlet, your radio/television show, to help those truly in need of intervention and to protect the communities nationwide as well. Please use discernment while maintaining a sense of discernment and caution. In the Book of Malachi 2:16 ” ….For one covereth violence with his garments, saith the Lord of Host: Therefore take heed to your spirit that ye deal not treacherously..”


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