Bully America

On March 6th, 1988, Cameron Robert Kocher went to his house, slowly climbed the stairs to an upstairs bedroom, unlocked the gun safe and retrieved and then loaded a .35-caliber Marlin rifle with attached scope. He then went to the window, opened it, and aimed the gun. He pulled the trigger, killing his thirteen-year-old neighbor, Jessica Carr, with a single shot to the back. He hid the spent casing and replaced the gun. A year later he was charged with homicide in the first-degree.

The biggest question one might have so far is the issue of why it took a whole year to lock up the homicidal maniac. Surely this is a cut-and-dry case, and Cameron Kocher should be locked up for good! But, there is just one detail that throws a wrench in the system: Cameron Robert Kocher was nine years old at the time; he was an honors student, a Cub Scout. When asked for a motive, the bewildered child answered through tears – he had been “playing hunter” and had seen only snow and trees through the lens before firing.

Cameron Robert Kocher was charged with homicide-one, which, by law, can result in a maximum punishment of lethal injection. If prosecutors had pursued the option, the state of Pennsylvania would have legally executed a child. According to the law, this nine-year-old committed an adult crime. As an adult.

It’s a tough argument to make – saying that a nine-year-old is an adult. But trying minors is far from uncommon. The Associated Press asserts that, every year, 200,000 people under the age of eighteen are tried in the adult justice system. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of these defendants are not nine years old, or guilty of killing another human. But this doesn’t make their sentencing any less heinous.

Consider Nathan Ybanez, who suffered from seemingly endless abuse at the hands of his mother before he took matters in his own hands and ended the abuse – by killing her in self-defense. Despite these circumstances, Ybanez was denied his legal right to a lawyer, given only one day of defense testimony, prevented from mentioning the abuse in court, and sentenced to life without parole.

Another sixteen-year-old, from Connecticut, was charged as an adult with third-degree assault after stealing a pack of gum from another teenager. Dietrick Mitchell, a sixteen-year-old alcoholic, definitely had his issues. But he wasn’t a member of a gang, as admitted by the mother of the teen he killed while driving drunk. Nevertheless, the accident was ruled a gang-killing and Mitchell received a first-degree murder charge. Finally and most recently, twelve-year-old Cristian Fernandez is being prosecuted by Florida as an adult guilty of first-degree homicide. The circumstances of the case: Fernandez pushed his younger brother into a bookshelf twice, causing massive internal bleeding and skull fracturing. He called his mom, who came home, searched the internet about what to do with a passed-out child, then downloaded music and went on Youtube, finally taking her child to the hospital several hours later, where he died. The mother is being charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter.

Juvenile offenders range from the confused nine-year-old to the seventeen-year-old repeat offender, but they all have one thing in common. They are all treated unfairly, treated as adults – something they are not. The criminal justice system tells us that children as young as nine can make the rational, adult decision to commit a crime. At the same time, though, it is maintained that a seventeen-year-old is not able to make the rational, adult decision to vote, to gamble, to smoke, to drink. A twelve-year-old cannot be given the sacrosanct honor of purchasing a lottery ticket – they simply do not have the brain development or critical thinking skills required to responsibly spend one dollar – but when the same twelve-year-old takes his father’s shotgun and kills someone over a seemingly-meaningless conflict, he just displayed maturity and critical thinking skills that merit him being punished as an adult. The Supreme Court itself pointed out this immense failure of logic in 1966’s Kent vs.US: “The child receives the worst of both worlds… neither the protections accorded to adults, nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children.”

Despite the logical failure inherent in “adult crime, adult time” as the catchphrase goes, Americans remain stuck in a bully’s mentality, picking on those who can’t defend themselves. Take, for example, the “tough” stance on crime taken by Charles Stimson of the conservative think-tank, The Heritage Foundation. Last year, Stimson published a 98-page report justifying everything short of the death penalty for all of the nation’s gum-stealing teenagers. Stimson would no doubt argue that locking up Cameron Kocher and throwing away the key would be, in his words, “lawful and appropriate.” Any arguments to end the system are blanket-labeled as the result of “slanted stories,” and Stimson urges lawmakers to look past the anecdotes and into the numbers. The numbers, however, simply don’t justify the ethical problems with Stimson’s stance. In essence, America needs to get “tough” on crime by going after the teenagers?

But, reconsider. Can a system where middle-aged prosecutors and gray-haired judges bully around teenagers truly be called “tough?” Or is it better described as rough, as mean, as unnecessarily petulant? Is a system that denies its subjects their basic Constitutional rights one that merits defense?

More so, is it effective? Mike Males, a sociologist at the University of California, doesn’t believe so. And in proving so, Dr. Males points to studies of the juvenile justice system taken in the 1970’s. These studies took a sample of juvenile offenders and placed one-third of them into a “conservative” prison system, one-third into a “liberal” rehabilitation program, and simply released the final third. After a year, the researches revisited the offenders, and were shocked: the jail system led to a 32% re-arrest rate, the rehab led to a 31% re-arrest rate, and 30% of those who were let free ended up back behind bars. As Males points out, until America comes up with a real solution to her juvenile crime problem, she might as well just let most offenders go.

Dr. Males’ conclusion is correct, but his solution is not. He argues that setting an age of adulthood is impossible, so the justice system should deal with offenders on an individualized, case-to-case basis, which is basically a brilliantly insightful way of describing what happens in the status quo.

The problem is that justice is blind. Justice is not tailor-made, custom-designed, or meant to fit to individual needs. This is why courts tend to follow the decisions of previous courts, and why, more applicably, all eighteen-year-olds are allowed to vote, not just the smart ones.

This does admittedly pose a conundrum. Crime policies aren’t easy to create, and setting a cut-off age certainly wouldn’t be an end-all solution. As one lawmaker in Michigan pointed out, if we set the age of adult culpability for a crime at sixteen, someone brings in a murderous fifteen-year-old, and so on.

The solutions are not simple, but the status quo is definitely not acceptable. Revisiting Dr. Males, there is something even more troublesome about the juvenile justice system. In California, youth sentenced of murder spent between 55 and 62 months in jail, whereas adults sentenced of murder served, on average, 49 months behind bars. In other words, kids are spending more time in adult jails than adults are.

The simple fact is that children are not adults, and should therefore not be treated as such by the criminal justice system, unless the rest of America starts to treat them so. America should no longer be quick to lash out at any example of juvenile delinquency with a bully’s heavy hand. Juvenile offenders should be treated and dealt with responsibly, not thrown away for life. Rehabilitation, too long ignored in the justice system as a whole, should form the basis of our dealings with all juvenile offenders – as well as recognition of the fact that the people being dealt with, even the 17-year-olds, are legally juveniles.

If a child can commit an adult crime, then that child can handle adult rights. If not, then not. It’s as simple as that, and it’s time the system introduced some logic into its functions. Or else, legions of gum-“borrowing” teenagers are set for a rude awakening.

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