As one peruses typical headlines these days, he or she will more than likely encounter at least one mention of a murder or a similarly serious crime committed by someone under the age of 18. In years past, this – more often than not, anyway – resulted in the debate over whether the suspect should be tried as a youth or as an adult. Typical factors often included the suspect’s age, his or her mental capacity, compelling factors (self-defense, etc.) and whether the crime was particularly egregious or whether the commission of said crime deserved some measure of compassion. To wit, a thief who steals a loaf of bread to feed his or her family should be treated differently than one who steals a car for pure entertainment, and a person who murders another human being in self-defense should be treated differently than one who murders another human being, again, for pure entertainment.
Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases involving 14-year-olds sentenced to life in prison (14 years old: Too young for life in prison?). The first, Evan Miller, who is now 23, involves Miller’s participation in the murder – by bludgeoning with a baseball bat – of a 52-year-old male neighbor who lived in the same trailer park as Miller. Subsequent to the murder, he and his accomplice set fire to the trailer.
The second, Kuntrell Jackson, involved the hold up of a video store during which one of his accomplices shot the clerk. Prior to arriving at the store he and his accomplices discussed the hold-up and during the act itself he threatened the clerk, but he did not pull the trigger.
Given community standards and differing life experiences, it’s understandable to react differently to essentially the same crime in different communities. However, the disparity of the two examples above alone suggests that more should be done to address the issues surrounding underage crime and sentencing youths as adults.
However – and we can be sure there are thousands of cases each year which could be debated as being unfair examples of excessively punishing youth crimes – it is a bit disconcerting that with increasing frequency young people are participating in crimes that result in murder, sometimes with extremely excessive violence. Again, there’s a difference between a gun accidentally going off while two children are playing and a 14-year-old bludgeoning his drunken neighbor with a baseball bat.
To quote Kim Taylor-Thompson, a professor of clinical law at NYU Law, "no one is excusing the fact of what happened. What we are saying is: Did these two young men engage in thought processes that would make us say today they're the type of individuals who can never be rehabilitated, never change and be locked up to never see the light of day? We believe that they deserve a second look.”
The problem for me is less the age at which these crimes are being committed and more in the temper of these crimes. Each crime – more or less – is different, but when there’s excessive violence involved, and the motive is purely dysfunctional, attempting to rehabilitate perpetrators of these types of dysfunctional crimes seems, to me, wasteful.
We can all agree that a stupid mistake at 13 or 14 – can sometimes be met with a combination of understanding and maturity. Stealing a car, as opposed to committing rape, arson or murder, can perhaps be grounds for rehabilitation. However, while we’d all like to believe that a young mind can be taught to behave in a proper way, and to “unlearn” dysfunctional, abhorrent behavior, to me there seem some mistakes which, once crossed, cannot be atoned. While some might observe that youths who commit certain egregious, violent crimes can possibly be rehabilitated, it seems to me – with increasing frequency – that a young person who is already on the road to violent crime is even less likely to be rehabilitated than an older person who has committed such crime.
Put another way, a 14-year-old who is capable of murderous, violent behavior is, in my belief, more dangerous and defective than perhaps an older person who has “grown” into this type of behavior.
I might be wrong, but it seems to me that perhaps we should give a second look to revising the age whereby a young criminal can be considered an adult.
Put yet another way, if we’re unwilling as a society to ask ourselves what inspires a 14-year-old to commit murder, rape, arson and other extremely violent crimes, perhaps we should revise the punishment to fit the revised crime.