20 January 2013

Charged as an Adult

by Leigh Lundin

I write today's column as a matter of conscience. Friends who like labels find me hard to politically peg, but most issues boil down to common sense– What's right and what's wrong. A wrong that horrifies me is the practice of criminally charging children as adults.

Common wisdom says America's too soft on criminals. Common wisdom is wrong– the yoke of our punitive Puritans weighs heavily upon us. Although you may have read the US imprisons more of its population than the vast majority of nations, in the same category as Iran and North Korea, that's old news. The Guardian reports the US is now N° 1 when it comes to jailing its citizens. In more detail, according to The Economist, the USA has 5% of the world's population but incarcerates one fourth of all prisoners on the planet.

Contributing to this is a phenomenon called 'over-sentencing', like a three-strikes life term for stealing a bicycle. Parole boards, fearful of being dubbed weak or soft on crime, are loath to release offenders. Likewise Congress enacts ever harsher, more punitive legislation, capped with laws making it difficult to prove post-conviction actual innocence. And prisons are profitable– not for taxpayers, but for the newly emerging prison corporations.

Eating Their Young

kids in prison
© Reuters; 20Minutes.fr
America is nearly unique charging children as adults. Until the Supreme Court finally ruled against capital punishment of children, states used to execute kids, both boys and girls.

Prosecutors offer rationalizations: "[She] deserves to be tried as an adult for making an adult decision." "The more adult the crime, the more deserving the killer is of adult justice." Certainly heinous acts arouse the fury of the public, especially killing of another child. It's not easy to like or feel sympathy for a creature that kills a parent or the very young, merging into a society that's willing to discard what it considers mistakes… even when the mistakes are our own fault.

The problem is that youngsters are not adults. Children are not even close to mature given the arbitrary age of majority of 18, 21, or– as insurance companies insist 25. If anything, child criminals may be less mature than others their age, but that doesn't stop persecutors from trying children as adults, often opting for life without parole.

Treating Their Young

The recent case of Jordyn Howe has turned a tragedy into a triple heartbreak. The 15-year-old Florida boy showed off one of his family's .40 calibre automatics on his school bus. The weapon discharged, killing 13-year-old Lourdes Guzman-DeJesus. Weeks later, her distraught father Armando committed suicide.

Miami-Dade Detective Roy Rutland concluded the shooting was an accident. Those who know the slender, clean-cut youth contend he is a decent boy. but that isn't stopping prosecutors from charging the child as an adult, despite early assurances that wouldn't happen.

Can prosecutors ever justify trying children as adults? If so, for what offenses, what circumstances? Can 'bad seed' be saved or is society right to throw away the key with the child? What do you think?


  1. Leigh, I can't believe you wrote this column without mentioning Christian Fernandez, especially since his is another Florida event.

    Christian is a twelve-year-old who knocked his two-year-old brother into the bookcase and is accused of then beating him. The two-year-old died of skull fracture and bleeding of the brain.

    The son of a woman who gave birth to him when she was twelve years old, Christian's own infancy and childhood are filled with horrible incidents and he's been diagnosed as functioning far below chronological age.

    Christian Fernandez holds the honor of being the youngest person ever charged as an acult for first degree murder in Jacksonville, Florida. Those interested in such tragedies might like to investigate this case.

  2. Good column.
    And the whole matter of juvenile crime is complicated by our racially biased justice system

  3. Leigh, you hit one of my main concerns. I don’t understand why we, as a so-called Christian nation, treat children as adults when they commit a heinous crime. Why is it that we consider a 15-year-old too young to get a license to drive a car but old enough to stand trial as an adult when he or she kills someone? Do prosecutors believe children’s brains work differently when they commit a heinous crime, that is, as an adult brain, but as a child’s brain under ordinary circumstances. We are not as some would have us believe an enlightened society when it comes to children. It seems in such cases, vengeance is the acceptable and expected response.

  4. I respect all my fellow bloggers' opinions, but I have to speak up when I hear the United States called a Christian nation. That would make me a second class citizen, and I don't accept it for a second. One of our most basic freedoms is separation of church and state, which gives Jewish Americans like me and other non-Christians equality with the rest.

  5. Fran, I didn't mention Christian Fernandez although I have several articles on him. His case is a hot-button topic here because the prosecutor contends he regularly 'beat' his little brother, although others say they wrestled. Even so, charging him as an adult should offend us. (I have dozens of other recent cases documented across the country.)

    Janice and Louis, you are right. Our present system is unfair and uncaring.

    Elizabeth, I can't put words in Louis' mouth, but I'm sure he meant predominantly 'Judeo-Christian', but I don't want that to derail the discussion.

  6. Elizabeth, I to believe in the separation of church and state. I don’t consider the United States to be a “Christian nation” which is why I used the term “so-called.” I am well aware of what it means to be considered first a noncitizen and later a second class citizen, and of the fact that the Christians in the United States used the Bible to justify their treatment of the Africans both during slavery and the years of jim crow.

    I apologize if my use of the term “Christian nation” offended you.

  7. I have never believed children should be tried as adults, no matter what the nature of the crime.
    (1) They don't know what's real from what's TV or video game - they often expect the other person to get up, come back, that somehow it won't or didn't happen.
    (2) They make stupid decisions all the time. That's why we don't let them live alone unsupervised. That's also why we hopefully don't let the drive or own guns, but of course, up here in South Dakota, you can get a learner's permit at 14 - and with it permission to drive for farm purposes all by yourself - and you can go hunting WAY younger than that.
    (3) They're children. They will change. (Didn't we all? Hopefully?) And they will grow up and change much better if they are first alive and second, not in prison for life.

    Up here the case that has had me upset for years is that of Paul Dean Jensen, who killed a cab driver at age 15 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Word is, ten years later, that he suffers from depression. Wonder why.

  8. Leigh, I know there are many, many cases. Christian Fernandez's is especially heart-breaking to me because of the many children I taught who came from similar backgrounds and were, as I believe Christian was, truly living in a world so devoid of human kindness that even those not significantly below their chronological age were very, very far behind in development of compassion because they hadn't experienced it.

  9. D'accord, Eve and Fran. Our present system is heartbreaking but as long as toady 'get-tough-on-crime' politicians and prosecutors run the show, fairness and justice are unlikely to reign.

  10. Hi Leigh,
    I think the ‘tough on crime’ politicians and prosecutors play to the crowd and do whatever it takes to further their careers. We pretend to protect our children, but let one of them screw up and we viciously turn on them.
    In my opinion many adults do little to give children the guidance they so desperately need. I can’t imagine what it would be like growing up today with so many negative influences and peer pressure to deal with. I’ve read that their brains don’t even mature until sometime in their twenties. Should it be any surprise that some of these heinous events involving children are happening? I don’t think so-especially when you factor in the widespread use of giving children dangerous prescription drugs. Have a problem with a kid? Just hand them a pill and everything will be fine.

  11. I wasn't aware how extensive this is. Can't we do anything about it without branding people soft or leftist?


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