Adulting

It’s hard—especially in the juvenile justice system

By Sarah Sidlow

Parens Patriae. No, it’s not a Harry Potter spell. It’s actually an idea: political authority carries with it the responsibility to protect its citizens—as a protector, caretaker, disciplinarian. It’s one component behind the philosophy for creating a separate juvenile justice system in the United States—basically so the state can act as a parent when a young person needs a kick in the tush.

But some states adopt a tough-love method of parenting, by trying juvenile offenders as adults. And why not? With toddlers becoming facile with smart devices and pre-teens mastering makeup contouring, the social line between child and adult has become blurred (or blended).

For those in favor of trying juveniles who have committed serious crimes—like murder or sex crimes—in adult court, the message is clear: we aren’t soft on crime, and just because you might get a discount at the movies doesn’t mean you’ll be spared the full punishment. In other words, if you’re old enough to do the crime, you’re old enough to do the time.

Proponents also claim this method will reinforce accountability in youth culture, with the potential overall outcome of reducing crime. Moreover, they claim juvenile courts are sometimes not taken seriously, and often lack proper trial and/or jury. This image downplays the seriousness of the crime committed and sends the wrong message to the perp.

But others say the state shouldn’t take the parenting onus away from, well, the kid’s actual parents. By trying juveniles as adults, the state strips the parents of their responsibility for their children, removing possible sentences that require parental accountability. Others say the state might simply be parenting too harshly by trying juveniles in the adult system. They point to the risks child offenders face in adult prisons, which might ruin any chance of the child’s mental rehabilitation, or could even end up further cementing the child into the culture of mature, adult crime.

They also claim that trying children as adults squelches any chance the children may have had at living normal lives—whether that’s because they feel the justice system hasn’t given them a fair shake or because of the criminal record that will follow them wherever they go for the rest of their very, very, long lives.

In an interesting flip of the coin, some state legislators are actually arguing to raise the maximum age for offenders to stay in the juvenile justice system. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy publicly proposed to divert 18- to 20-year-olds to the juvenile system, to avoid facing serious penalties for misdemeanors (especially if they have no prior record). “Let’s consider this: age within our laws and criminal justice system is largely arbitrary,” he said last year. “You can commit a nonviolent offense at 17 without a criminal record, but if you’re 18 and you commit the same crime, it lasts a lifetime.”

Others argue additional points: it is illegal to consume alcohol or purchase a handgun before age 21, and young people can’t serve in Congress until age 25. Their auto insurance is more expensive and access to car rentals more limited under age 25, but on the plus side, youth can now stay on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26.

So, why are the legal definitions of “adulthood” so different based on the situation? And how do we go back to just being kids?
Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com

 

Our juvenile delinquency

By Ben Tomkins

The overarching trend in the United States for the last 40 or so years has been for legal systems to increase the likelihood that a technical minor will be tried as an adult in court. The practice, which has been around as long as there have been courts, is employed so as to make dispensing justice a more sophisticated and tailored practice, but, ironically, the shallow and limited nature of the human adult mind has brought about laws that do the opposite.

For instance, Ohio requires that teens ages 16-17 are tried as adults for certain crimes—typically, but not necessarily, violent or armed—and the option to do so is extended to juvenile courts when a minor as young as 14 is a repeat offender or meets sufficient criteria in the mind of a judge. The implications are obvious: as far as Ohio is concerned, 16 is the age at which a murderer is unquestionably an adult, and 18 is the age for most lesser crimes. Unfortunately, this reflects a bias in the minds of those who are intent on meting out blind punishment—at precisely the age threshold where the most consideration should be required.

If a young person is not extended the entirety of a society’s trust to engage in behaviors such as drinking, that, by definition, increases the possibility Mr. Hyde will rear his ugly head, then people have already rendered at least one verdict against the idea that all “adults” are deserving of equal consideration under the law. Everyone between the ages of 18-21 is a legal adult, wearing the training wheels of freedom made by their elders, until everyone else is sure they aren’t completely crazy. In other words, most theoretically “rational” adults—whatever that means—don’t have the slightest bit of faith that 20-year-olds have the ability to drink alcohol responsibly given the state of their brain development. At the very least, a 20-year-old is assumed not to have the social maturity to do so without the potential for mischief outweighing the freedoms equal protection under the law supposedly confers at 18.

I will now clarify Ohio’s position on murder: an abused, drunken 16-year-old kid with no family or community support living in grinding poverty is of the same quality of mental development as a stone-sober 35-year-old.

I’m not entirely convinced an 18-year-old-plus-10-minutes person with that laundry list of issues should even be subjected to the same legal system as the average college sophomore.

This is not the end of the problems plaguing the decision to try a minor as an adult. There are a large number of crimes where a judge must make a determination instead of the voters. The criteria that determine it are often heavily influenced by poverty, race, and many other factors that are no fault of the accused. If a kid doesn’t have a lot of family around—something that almost assuredly increases his or her odds of being convicted of a crime—then the legal response is to increase the odds of being tried as an adult. What is the message? If your parents don’t give a shit about you, then society is more likely to toss you aside as well. Poverty is another example. If you are less likely to be able to buy goods from Walmart because of your financial birth status, then you are a much more suitable candidate for the “Walmart line-shortening program so people with money can get home faster” institution called prison. It’s more than a little messed up.

Then…there is race. I don’t think I need to say too much about the correlation between being a minority and being tried as an adult. It will do to simply acknowledge that every piece of evidence ever gathered indicates there is no difference between how a black adult and a black minor are treated relative to white people in the legal system. If it is an abortion of justice when an adult population is treated unfairly, surely it is a far graver offense to visit that injustice upon young people.

Finally, if a kid is a repeat offender, he or she can be as young as 14 and stand in front of the court as if on equal footing with his or her parents. This is patently absurd to even the slowest of minds, but it absolutely gives away the purpose of trying kids as adults. If we don’t want to deal with someone, it is easier to lock them away in a cell and forget about them than it is to care. That’s what it comes down to: it’s not about giving minors a greater leash, it’s about not allowing ourselves to make impersonal decisions about whether or not a minor is a child or just some schmuck we can throw to the wolves.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit hillofathens.com. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

It’s tough medicine but…

By David H. Landon

While we, as a society, consider the issue of whether or not punishing violent juvenile offenders as adults is fair and just, it’s important to keep in mind exactly with whom we are dealing. There are always exceptions, but the child facing prosecution and punishment as an adult is not being tried for playing a game of “ding-dong ditch” with his or her friends (for you millennials: I would suggest Google, as, admittedly, this juvenile prank is somewhat dated). These are not kids who shoplifted or got caught drinking underage.

For a child to be tried as an adult, he or she is guilty of a violent crime and is usually in possession of a weapon during the crime.

A child, defined as a person under age 18, can be tried as an adult only if the child was age 14 or older at the time of the offense. Nearly all such cases begin in juvenile court with a felony charge. The court must conduct hearings and make certain determinations before the child can be transferred to another court for trial. The process is sometimes referred to as “bindover” or “transfer.” In some cases, the child must be tried as an adult. In others, the child can be tried as an adult only if the court orders it. Trial as an adult is mandatory in certain very serious cases: when the charge is aggravated murder or murder, and the child is 16 or 17. Again, we’re not talking about a kid who broke out some windows or knocked over a mailbox for kicks.

This is a very big deal for the juvenile court to consider certifying the child as an adult for purposes of trial. The judge is aware of the consequences of sending a juvenile to an adult facility. The courts look for every possible alternative to binding over a child to the adult system.

When the law does not mandate the transfer, the court has a choice whether or not to try a child as an adult, but may do so only if the child was 14 years or older at the time of a felony offense. First, the court conducts a hearing to determine if there is probable cause that the child committed the offense. Next, the court orders an investigation, including a mental examination, and conducts another hearing, often called an “amenability hearing,” to decide whether or not the child is likely to be rehabilitated within the juvenile system, and whether or not the community’s safety requires that the child be subject to adult penalties. A child, who has been in and out of juvenile court and has not responded well to attempts to rehabilitate that child, will likely be found to be not amenable to rehabilitation. The court considers factors like age, physical and mental maturity, past attempts, and future potential for rehabilitation, as well as the harm suffered by the victim, and public safety.

The Justice Department estimates about 10 percent of all homicides are committed by juveniles under the age of 18. Nearly every year, the FBI arrests more than 33,000 young adults under the age of 18 for serious felony offenses. The number of violent crimes committed by young people declined substantially from the 1990s to 2003, but then surged again beginning in 2004. The estimated number of juvenile murder offenders has increased nearly 30 percent from 2004 through 2014, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention.

Finding the right result for a violent juvenile offender is a balancing act. On one hand, the decision will follow the juvenile for his or her lifetime and very likely affect his future contribution to society. On the other hand, there are some young people that have strayed so far from societal norms that society can only be protected by locking them away—sometimes for a very long time.

It’s a tough argument some are trying to make that the State declaring the child should be tried as an adult somehow is taking the responsibility of parenting away from the child’s real parents. Honestly, by the time a child has reached the point in life where he, with purpose and forethought, takes the life of another, the parent has already lost the role of parent.

What causes a kid to go astray? The value of life in today’s throwaway society perhaps is a factor. Most experts agree that intervening with an “at-risk” and troubled child at an early age can make all of the difference in the world. I have a friend who works with these kids and the courts every day. He expressed that not giving children consequences for behavior that doesn’t conform to the law doesn’t mean we love those children more. In fact, not giving consequences, when a child deserves it perhaps suggests that we love them less.

However, lack of a stable home environment is probably the leading cause. Without role models, it is easy for a young person to go off track.

When a young person sees an adult who is a candidate for the highest office in the land intentionally violate federal law and then cover up the crime by deleting 33,000 emails, is there any wonder there is a lack of respect for the law?

 

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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