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Juvenile offenders need certainty of punishment

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 15, 2008 at 6:00 pm with No Comments »
November 15, 2008 6:00 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Justice has finally caught up with Semaj Booker, who gained national fame after stealing a car, leading police on a high speed chase and stealing a flight to Texas – all at age 9.

Fed up with Booker’s subsequent misbehavior, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson last week revoked the boy’s deferred convictions and left him with two felonies on his record.

That’s a good thing. Booker – now 11 – had flouted the law too many times with too few consequences.

But it’s also a good thing that those are juvenile felonies and that Booker, an obviously smart kid, is still being treated as capable of rehabilitation.

Infamous as he has become, Booker is only a single offender among a crowd of mostly faceless juvenile criminals. Like Booker, virtually all of them are going to wind up back in their communities. It is a tragedy when any juvenile winds up being prosecuted as an adult and consigned to prisons that serve as schools for hardened criminals.

An extreme parallel to Booker’s case is now playing out in Arizona, where an 8-year-old boy now faces two counts of premeditated murder – as an adult – after being accused of killing his father and another man with a .22 caliber rifle.

In another strange case, three Georgia third-graders were prosecuted last spring for allegedly leading six other third-graders in a plot to kill their teacher. They reportedly got angry after the teacher disciplined one of them for standing on a chair.

That was a juvenile prosecution.

Juvenile justice requires the system – and society – to grapple with difficult questions of accountability, criminal intent and nature vs. nurture.

Traditionally, an 8-year-old or a 9-year-old was considered incapable of truly understanding right from wrong and the consequences of his actions. Children that young typically didn’t wind up even in juvenile detention. Older children were likewise often assumed to be acting out as a result of abuse or neglect.

The surge in juvenile crime that began in the 1980s hardened attitudes. Offenses by minors have been declining since the mid-1990s, but laws that made it easier to charge them as adults – or mandated it, in many cases – remain on the books.

Sometimes adult prosecution is appropriate. But it is hard to imagine an 8-year-old so depraved and so incapable of redemption that he ought to be given a long adult sentence, even if he shot two adults.

In Booker’s case – and many, many others – the biggest danger lies in giving the impression that no one is serious about holding youths accountable for their behavior.

A juvenile who commits several serious offenses with impunity can easily come to the conclusion that society doesn’t much care what they do. Certainty of punishment is often more important than severity of punishment.

Booker and his peers should be given a healthy taste of that certainty.

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