On Locking Up Teens

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 1:17 AM EDT

From 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.

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 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.

Now that you've had some time to understandably fart, a la Life of Brian, in "[Lotts'] general direction," let's take a moment to remember who we are as the people we proclaim to the world we are. You remember 'us'? The people who believe in the rule of law.

Bad as it is that most of these kids are minorities, worse is that some of them are serving life without parole for non-murder, however horrific their crimes were.

I've been the victim of violent crime and had family members actually maimed for life and murdered, so it's not that I'm soft on crime. But I am soft on double standards. Trying kids as adults, as a category in itself, I find horribly unjust. Either you're a kid or you're not. No matter how mature a kid is, we don't let them vote til they're 18, drive til they're 16, drink, see dirty movies or marry until they're whatever that age is in your state. In law school, I was taught that this is your basic 'one way ratchet' and, by definition, to be viewed with suspicion.

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The other thing I learned in law school, which only reinforced a concept I was inculcated with at home and by nature, was a respect -- nay, a reverence for the rule of law. That means, we make laws etc. in cold blood so as to guide us through the hot-blooded patches. Killing your stepbrother counts as a hot-blooded patch. The more something upsets us, the longer we should reflect on the proper course of action. 9/11 comes to mind.

We should ditch the entire discourse around trying kids as adults as a matter of the rule of law. If you're a kid, then this. If you're an adult, then that. But deciding case by case is an excellent recipe for letting all our -isms (sex-, race-, class-, vigilant- you name it) control us. OJ's acquittal, flamingly guilty as he was, was both just and good policy given that the LAPD and DA's office flagrantly framed a guilty man. The net result was teaching police and prosecutors around the country to either frame folks more thoroughly or, like, not frame folks at all. That's walking the walk of believing in the rule of law. That's sending a message about what is and is not tolerated. But trying kids as adults on a case by case, oh-so-prone-to-injustice basis? That's just an announcement to the world that you don't believe in the rule of law but in your own 'gut'.

America should decide that kids are inherently, innately different from adults (why else statutory rape or child labor laws?) or do away with the distinction itself and just say what it really means: Perps are perps are perps are perps. Otherwise, we'd just be gilding the lilies of our own hypocrisy and our penchant for pitchforks.