It’s a sad fact that kids are not only the victims of tragic violence in our country, but that they also are sometimes the perpetrators. We’ve all seen stories of children who gun down their classmates in the middle of a school day or attack their parents or act out in dangerous ways against siblings or peers on the neighborhood. Our justice system has long struggled with how to punish these youngest of offenders. At what age can a kid committing an adult act of violence be considered an adult himself? When is a child old enough for us to say she can spend the rest of her life in prison without the possibility of life outside bars, even if she is not yet old enough to drive?
Karen Franklin, PhD posted a sobering piece on her blog recently that examines the unique way in which the United States deals which juvenile criminals. Did you know that there are currently more than 2500 Americans serving life without parole for crimes that they committed before reaching the age of eighteen? There needs to be consequences in place for a violent act no matter the age of the assailant, to be sure, but it is stunning to imagine a young teenager who now will spend the next sixty years in jail.
The difficult topic of putting young people behind bars becomes even more complicated when you examine the backgrounds that the boys and girls bring to their violent acts. Most of them experienced high levels of violence in their home environments and, as Franklin points out, three-fourths of the girls serving life sentences had been victims of sexual abuse. These statistics are not meant to mitigate the horror of the violence that these teenagers did to land them a life sentence, but it does bring into question how we may better serve our children to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place.
What are your thoughts on sentencing a juvenile to life in prison?
Does a fourteen-year-old who commits murder deserve to lose his freedom until his death, or do kids need to be considered differently in our courtrooms?
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It’s a sad situation to ponder. Part of me says a juvenile should never spend his life in prison. Another part of me, from my days as a police reporter, knows that some fourteen year olds, who have never had guidance or any values instilled within them, will commit violent crimes again if they ever set foot on the streets again.
I wrote a series of postings on my blog earlier this year about my experiences working with youthful offenders. I took them sailing and taught them skills while hopefully showing them that they could be successful in more acceptable pursuits. Fortunately, none of the boys I worked with had committed murder, yet. Car jacking. Burglary. Robbery. But, no murders. Many probably went on to commit more crimes following my time with them. Some, maybe even murdered. I know of at least two who were later murdered.
From that perspective I can only say that there are no answers to your questions. You need to break them down into more manageable (bite-sized) pieces. Certainly, it would be far better to prevent children from murdering than to deal with the results. That is where I prefer to focus my attention. Once they have murdered (blooded the spear) it is easier to do it again. That is why they are incarcerated.
Can they be reformed. We have seen some success reforming the teen and pre-teen “soldiers” from revolutions in Africa. Maybe there are some lessons there.
I agree with Jack and Caleb, it’s a tough question with no easy answers. I would hope that we strive for systems and programs that at least try to rehabilitate and release teens who commit crimes, as opposed to treating them the same as adults and throwing away the key. It’d be one of those case-by-case basis situations, though.
Thank you all for your comments. I know this is a huge topic and there aren’t any easy answers or general perspectives, but I feel it’s something that needs to be re-evaluated and discussed on a regular basis. Unfortunately, we are beginning to see more and more of these types of situations.
I agree with Laura that each case needs to be evaluated independently. I’m afraid that many times the criminal justice system wants an easy fix or a one size that fits all situations.
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You ask a really tough question. If a juvenile has committed murder and already has a sociopathic personality, he should spend the rest of his life in prison. If he’s released, the rest of us will be in danger. If there are extenuating circumstances, and the juvenile has a hidden “heart of gold”, then the plot thickens. The challenge is figuring out which child is a lost cause and which can be rehabilitated.
I agree with everyone here: this is a tough question but certainly juveniles should NOT be treated as adults. They can still evolve if right guidance is provided – a tall order I know but well worth the try! The alternative is a lost life and that’s always a tragedy.
Excellent post, Jennifer, and a big, big question!