Saturday, March 27, 2010

When Juveniles Commit Crimes

"Murder is not only the most serious crime, but it is often the most understandable. Murder happens, in many cases, in the family. It is the sort of crime that might be committed by ordinary and even decent people who would be quite incapable of taking part in a bank raid or robbing the Co-op."

-- John Mortimer, Clinging to the Wreckage
We've been otherwise occupied the past two days, but down at the Pensacola News Journal, columnist Reginald Dogan seems to have been helplessly wringing his hands and slowly shaking his head over a "Homicide Shrouded in Mystery." Fourteen year old Warren Williams, reportedly "a good little kid, a good member of the chorus," has been charged with murdering his father.

Kris Wernowski reports the very few news details known to date:
Warren Williams, who was a Brown-Barge Middle School student, told police he took a handgun that was hidden in his father's chest of drawers to his own room, an arrest report says.

He took out the magazine, reloaded the gun, went to the living room and shot his father numerous times, the boy told officers.

The child then called 911 and told a dispatcher he had just shot and killed his father, according to the report. * * * When police arrived, they found the father on the living room floor with several live and spent shell casings near the body. The gun was on a nearby counter top.

The case is becoming a local sensation. Which is to say, it's a good bet that all we're likely to see from the media in the coming weeks and months is Nancy Grace-style coverage. Expect no analysis of any public policy issues that perchance arise out of the case. Macabre mayhem sells; public policy doesn't.

Dogan's article pretty much gives us the template. He more or less surrenders all pretense of thinking about the legal-policy question now pending -- whether the child defendant should be tried by the courts as if he were an adult:
A first-degree murder conviction as an adult would carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison. As a 14-year-old, he cannot face the death penalty.

Increasingly, children are being tried as adults for serious crimes, so it's too late to debate whether this is the way justice should be served. [emphasis added]

Warren is among more than 20 juveniles charged with adult crimes in Escambia County Jail.
Post hoc, propter hoc. (Loose trans: Since so many children are being tried as adults, justice is being served. Nothing to see here, folks, so let's just move along.)

Dogan is smarter than that. He can and should do better. The excessive frequency of remanding children to adult court hardly is probative evidence that "justice is being served." If anything, it merely proves that notorious cases can heap irresistible political pressure on prosecutors and the courts.

To be sure, there may be in individual cases legitimate reasons for remanding a juvenile offender to adult court for trial. Those reasons, objectively applied, may or may not require that in this case Warren Williams be treated as an adult; not to mention some or all of the other "20 juveniles charged with adult crimes" whom Dogan mentions.

But what are the appropriate standards or criteria by which to assess that question? Does the public have a clue? Do the media? Who makes the remand determination? Is it entirely up to the discretion of the prosecutor? The grand jury? A judge?

What role does the legislature play in loading the dice against treating a criminal child like a child? When, if ever, should a juvenile suspect be treated as an adult -- and why?

These are, in fact, hot questions among experts in the field of juvenile justice. They deserve to be aired by a newspaper columnist, not swept aside like realities as unalterable as the laws of physics.

As one recent study concludes [paid subscription req'd], "political factors" often play a large role in determining which juveniles will be treated as adults and which will not. In our increasingly cynical age, it may no longer be news that justice is at the mercy of politics. But that doesn't excuse shielding our eyes from the issue.

As one of the nation's foremost scholars in juvenile justice has noted [Donna M. Bishop, "Juvenile Offenders in the Adult Criminal Justice System," 27 Crime and Justice 81 (2000)]:**
From the beginning, juvenile courts responded to the public outrage generated by heinous offenses by subordinating the interests of youths to demands for penal proportionality. Although transfer of these cases was inconsistent with basic precepts of the juvenile court, it was politically expedient. Demands for harsh punishment threatened the legitimacy of the court and its therapeutic mission. By relinquishing authority over a few seriously violent offenders, the court placated the public and preserved its rehabilitative commitment to the vast majority of juveniles.
What Prof. Bishop means is (1) offenders whose violent crimes excite the public's imagination (fueled, inevitably, by the media) are the ones most likely to be thrown overboard no matter how remote the chances are that a particular child offender will be violent ever again; and (2) in many cases, even in cases of the most violent crimes, remanding children to adult court doesn't improve public safety.

In fact, according to Prof. Bishop, extent evidence suggests the opposite:
There is no evidence that transfer has any general deterrent value: the enactment and implementation of well-publicized transfer legislation does not appear to decrease the incidence of target offenses. Similarly, there is no evidence that transfer has marginal specific deterrent benefits over processing in the juvenile system. The existing research indicates that juveniles prosecuted as adults reoffend more quickly and at rates equal to or higher than comparable youths retained in the juvenile system. [emphasis added]
** (For those without access to Prof. Bishop's book or journal articles, some idea of her findings can be gleaned from this review of The Changing Borders of Juvenile Justice, a collection of essays edited by Jeffrey Fagan and Franklin E. Zimring.)


Anonymous said...

I detest the desire for, and the public outcry of, "Justice!!", and he took a life he should be "put to death by the needle" type of outcry we read in the comments of the PNJ.

I wonder how many of those, faced with this exact same situation, would call for that same "justice".

I doubt that any of them would. They would claim that the government had targeted them, and say that justice was blind.

Be very careful, since no one has walked in this young mans shoes, and none of us have been in this situation.

Judge not, lest ye be judged.

For me, I have a broken heart for the whole family, since it appears there was something so wrong, so dark, that even the closest members of the family did not know of it.


Lori said...

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."