Monday, March 21, 2011

Should Teens Be Charged as Adults?

We don't let children vote and we don't let children sign contracts, but once they're old enough to drive, they should be able to stand trial for murder ...?

Prosecuting children as adults is a touchy subject, especially from the perspective of one who advocates on behalf of children. A brutal, callous case that occurred in September 2010 got me thinking about this very topic. On that evening, 81-year-old George Baker was indiscriminately attacked while walking down the main street of sleepy Lynchburg, Virginia, after attending his granddaughter's wedding. The Tempe, Arizona, resident was on his way back to his hotel from the reception when two 16-year-old boys and one 13-year-old boy randomly attacked him.

A police search-warrant affidavit connected with the arrest of the three juveniles describes how, immediately before the attack, one boy had told their female companions that he was going to hit the next person he saw, thinking this would impress the girls. That boy then struck the elderly gentleman, who fell to the ground. The second boy then kicked the unconscious Mr. Baker in the head. Mr. Baker, who had extensive head injuries, died at the hospital early the next morning.

The three teenage boys were arrested after being identified by witnesses to the attack. All have been charged with murder. The two 16 year olds were charged as adults, in accordance with Virginia law.

But is that correct? And who decides? Treating a child like an adult can be a decision made either by the court or by the prosecutor. The leading U.S. Supreme Court decision of Kent v. United States actually delineates the factors that should be considered in making this determination – namely, the seriousness of the crime, the suspect's age and the suspect's criminal past. Most people do not understand that serious reflection goes into the decision to try a child as an adult. In fact, by an eerie coincidence, Virginia's current policies governing how and when to prosecute juveniles as adults was being reviewed by the Virginia State Crime Commission during the very week of Mr. Baker's attack.

The discussion surrounded proposed legislation that would allow a juvenile's lawyer to appeal the transfer of violent-crime charges to a non-juvenile court. Proponents of charging juveniles as adults cite the actual reduction of juvenile crime in Virginia since a 1996 law change, which requires the automatic transfers of murder and similar aggravated-malice charges to adult courts for juveniles over 14. Who knows whether this week's events will have a bearing on the final decision about what the state does with violent juveniles? At least the topic is being intelligently and systemically debated.

These decisions don't come easy–and they shouldn't. Children are our future, and there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. The only way to decide if it is an appropriate choice is to weigh the facts. In this case, the factors as we know them are:

    •    At least one of the three defendants had a premeditated plan.
    •    Two of the three are 16 – of age to drive (and even to consent to sex) in most states.
    •    The victim was a particularly vulnerable 81-year-old man who was by himself – and, by all witness accounts, doing nothing to provoke the attack.
    •    The crime showed a great degree of callousness: The boys allegedly continued to kick and beat Mr. Baker when he was on the ground and not resisting.
    •    This is not the boys' first interaction with law enforcement.
    •    The boys have been associated with a local gang.

Given all of that, is it bad that the children in this case (not every case) are being treated like adults? I say no – and kudos to prosecutors in Virginia for holding the perpetrators accountable for this despicable crime. The defendants – nicknamed The Lynchburg Teens – were tried for murder and convicted in the beating of George Baker.


Unknown said...

Why can't we have a new age category, 13-18 for example, then cover possible punishments in between kids and adult punishments. For truly heinous, pre-meditated, repeat crimes, have the punishments extend beyond whatever year their state considers them an adult.

Anonymous said...

In the case of young people..they have no business being in a prison with makes them worse and the current solution which is solitary confinement, makes them crazy. Our prisons are grossly overcrowded and support a large percentage of our economy which is disgusting. Frankly, they'd be better off dead than in an adult prison, so if you aren't going to give them the death penalty quickly and regularly, then give them radical therapy to change their lives..particularly because many younger teens are following the older friends or siblings and sometimes get the same punishment. The older ones prey on the younger ones, sometimes convincing them to hold the trigger and take the fall. It's horrible. This "in-between" that lawyers try for..this life in adult prison is absurd, but there aren't many alternatives, it seems.