USA: Children locked up for life

Every day, dozens of children under 18 years old are being sentenced to life imprisonment with poor legal representation and without parole. This is happening in the USA, a country that proclaims to respect the rights of 'freedom and democracy'.

Judges are failing to take into consideration the child’s age, or the circumstances in which the child grew up when making sentencing decisions. Children are being condemned to life imprisonment without being given the chance of any gradual rehabilitation or re-integration into society.

Quantel Lott

One such example is that of 14 year old Quantel Lott. On 13 November 1999 Lott stabbed his brother to death. When one examines the circumstances, the complexity of his case is revealed.

Lott, from Missouri, grew up in a violent environment. He was molested and beaten; his family both sold and used crack cocaine. From early age, he was raised to handle knives and other weapons and he collaborated with his family in selling drugs.

At the age of 14, he committed this tremendous crime with a hunting knife while playing with his brother. For this reason, he was sentenced to a life sentence regardless of whether the death was accidental or caused without specific intent to kill.

The judge didn’t take into consideration the environment in which Lott’s brother grew, the poor education he had received, the role models that influenced his life or his premature age.

Incarcerated and at the age of 17, Lott made a rudimentary tattoo gun and asked a cellmate to write two words on his forearms. On his right arm, he wrote DEAD while on the left he wrote MAN. He declared: 'That's how I felt at the time, like I was already dead'.

Life imprisonment for children can also occur for crimes generally viewed as less serious. One such example is murder committed under the ‘Felony Murder Rule’- a sort of guilt-by-association where an individual that witnessed a murder, even though they did not pull the trigger so to speak, can be treated as murderers under the law, and imposed with a life sentence. Furthermore, burglary is another crime, which in the US can attract a sentence of life imprisonment.

We been campaigning for individuals sentenced to crimes committed when they were children and has been successful in advocating for change.

Alison Parker, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, stated that: 'Kids who commit serious crimes shouldn't go scot-free but if they are too young to vote or buy cigarettes, they are too young to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.'

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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