Marc Mauer is the executive director of The Sentencing Project and the author of “Race to Incarcerate.”
AUGUST 18, 2014
A terrible tragedy has taken place in Michigan, with a 12-year-old boy accused of killing his 9-year-old companion. The decision to try such cases in adult court raises two fundamental questions. First, is this a reasonable course of action when the defendant is just a child, and second, what would the larger community gain by doing so?
Juvenile courts were established in recognition that children lack the maturity to appreciate the consequences of their acts, but can be rehabilitated.
The juvenile court was established over a century ago out of the basic recognition that children are different than adults. A 12-year-old lacks the maturity to appreciate the consequences of his actions and is not capable of aiding his attorney in presenting a legal defense. Moreover, the juvenile court has historically prioritized rehabilitating youthful offenders, no matter how serious the crime, because of the understanding that such change is uniquely possible for young people.
Some argue, though, that we need to “send a message” to the community that criminal behavior will not be tolerated. But is there a real risk that locking up the young boy in Michigan until he’s 21, as would be the case were he retained in the juvenile system, would somehow condone his alleged behavior? Further, it’s difficult to imagine that a trial in adult court would produce any deterrence benefits. It’s not as if other young boys are rationally calculating the relative number of years that they might be incarcerated before deciding to commit a senseless crime.
Frequently, a prosecutor will contend that an adult conviction allows a court to keep a young offender incarcerated after he turns 21, and conceivably for the rest of his life, for public safety purposes. But do we really believe that a decade behind bars is not a sufficient time to provide the assessment and treatment services necessary to aid troubled children?
As we consider how to handle the Michigan case, we would do well to note the words of the defendant just after the crime: “I just stabbed someone,” and “I want to die.” One cannot imagine a more profound cry for help. If we try to respond to that cry, we might have the chance to provide him with some semblance of a productive life after he serves time in the juvenile justice system. And in doing so, we could also try to understand how such a tragedy could have happened and what we can do to prevent the next one.