My local paper carried two stories the other day that underscore the tragic state of the criminal justice system – not just here in California, but nationwide.
On page one of the Monterey Herald was a report about the state’s overcrowded prisons, a situation so grim that it required action last month by the U.S. Supreme Court in which California was ordered to reduce its inmate population by 33,000.
Accompanying the story was a photo of prisoners at the California State Prison in Los Angeles. It showed a gymnasium-size room, with three-tiered bunk beds crammed together so tightly that there was barely room for inmates to so much as shift position by a foot or two. There isn’t a zoo in America that treats its animals that way.
But the news on page two was even more depressing. It concerned a 15-year-old who will be “tried as an adult” for the 2009 murders of two women. If convicted, the boy would be the youngest in county history to face a possible sentence of life in prison without the chance for parole.
The decision by Judge Marla Anderson ignores recent scientific findings about child development with respect to criminal responsibility. It also contradicts the emerging wisdom, if not the letter, of a ruling last year by the U.S. Supreme Court. Moreover, it defies reasonable and compassionate thinking about the treatment of juvenile offenders.
In jurisprudence, the U.S. remains a backward nation, lagging behind much of the civilized world regarding capital punishment, torture of military prisoners and, most alarmingly, treatment of minors.
While the Supreme Court has yet to rule specifically about trying juveniles as adults, it did in 2005 bar states from executing anyone for a crime committed as a minor. In a separate case last year, it ruled that no juvenile may be sentenced to life without parole for any crime other than murder.
There are “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the 2010 opinion. Indeed, just last month experts gathered in Phoenix to review the latest scientific findings, the most significant of which is that human psychosocial development doesn’t fully mature until at least age 22.
A staggering number of youngsters – roughly 250,000 – are tried as adults in the U.S. each year. However, according to the latest information from the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, 15 states have changed their policies about trying kids as adults, and reform efforts are underway in nine other states.
Juvenile justice advocates are watching a case in Pennsylvania in which a boy named Jordan Brown is charged with killing his father’s pregnant fiancée. Jordan was 11 at the time. A Lawrence County judge ordered him tried as an adult because he failed to show “remorse,” but the ruling was recently overturned by a Superior Court panel that ordered further review.
“Remorse” is part of the very psychological development pattern that makes youngsters distinctly different than adults – regardless of other circumstances, including the severity of their crimes.
While it would be reasonable to incarcerate a convicted juvenile until age 21 and then review carefully his psychological status before considering the ultimate sentence, to prosecute an 11 year-old and throw away the key is barbaric.
Children should not be categorized in the legal system based upon a courtroom appearance. The kid who commits a crime at age 14 might look and act very differently when standing before a judge two years later – in terms of height, weight, facial hair and general maturity – yet what matters is his developmental status at the moment the crime was committed.
That there are extenuating circumstances in many juvenile cases only serves to further cloud the question of essential fairness. In the California case, for example, the 15-year-old murder suspect has an IQ of 72, meaning he is mildly retarded. He is not accused of firing the murder weapon; rather, police say he pushed in the door and watched as someone else committed the crime.
Still, Judge Anderson declared that his “depravity of heart” make him unsuited for treatment in the juvenile system.
Murder is a horrible crime, regardless of the age of the perpetrator. Dangerous juvenile offenders should be neither coddled nor carelessly returned to society.
Yet, to suggest that children should be tried and sentenced as adults simply because the crimes of which they are accused cross a particular line of severity, shows that the real depravity resides in our society and in our souls.