Knowing right from wrong: Circular logic in juvenile punishments


I recently read a blog post on the Marshall Project discussing raising the age of criminal liability in several states, including Texas.  The post clearly and concisely laid out the arguments for and against raising the age and advocated strongly in favor of raising the age, and I recommend reading it if you have any interest in this subject.  However, it was not the arguments or the data used as evidence that grabbed my attention but instead it was a by a quote at the end by Texas State Senator John Whitmire.  Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, responded to a question about pending legislature in Texas that would raise the age by stating, “I think at 17 you should know right from wrong.”  To me, this was in the same vein as my friend’s comment to me a few weeks ago when commenting on the same legislature- “So Texas is going soft on crime?”  To figure out how deep this attitude exists in society, I decided to dig a little deeper into public sentiment in the most obvious and trustworthy of places- anonymous Internet comments.  Here are a few I found-

“i say, adult crimes, adult charges”

“Constantly pandering juvenile offenders only makes the problem worse.”

“The moral of this story is the same as it’s always been; don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

“Nobody made him skip the court hearing – he chose to.  Should he be given a pass because of his age – NO.  Should he be given a pass because of his race – NO.  Should he be given a pass because of his economic situation – NO. 

His age, race and economic situation didn’t make him break laws – he chose to.”

“I hope he gets his life together, but he needs to think before he acts. This particular issue isn’t about race, its about right and wrong”

“Be an adult, take your punishment and learn from it, young man”

“The kid broke the law! The kid tried to avoid taking responsibility for his actions! He needs to be held accountable.”

“Do big boy crime, do big boy time.”

“And the wussufication of America continues. Everyone gets a trophy, even young thugs.”

To be fair, I did cherry pick somewhat from a variety of news articles but I didn’t have to work very hard to do so.  Internet comments are not the best place to gauge public sentiment.  But they do have value in their sheer scale and oftentimes commentators exhibit a brutal honesty that can be a quick and dirty method of figuring out which way large segments of the public feel about a certain topic.   While there were some threads that contained thoughtful and well-reasoned arguments on both sides, it appeared to me that a majority of the comments are similar to those listed above.  What do these comments say about the efforts to #RaisetheAge in Texas and other states?

First, many adults appear to think that it is an action that determines your maturity level.  If a kid can commit a “big boy crime,” then that kid should “do big boy time.”  For me, that argument is circular because it allows an action of a minor that is by definition immature to somehow push the kid into maturity.  The actions of a minor do not determine his maturity level; age, experience, biology, and a myriad of other factors do.  If anything, the action proves the kid has not yet matured, not that his crime somehow gives him the maturity necessary to spend time in an adult prison.

Second, many commentators seem to believe that a punishment that does not involve spending time in an adult prison is not a punishment at all.  They equate spending time in a juvenile prison, or receiving probation, or providing community service, as avoiding responsibility.  Phrases like “pandering” or “wussification” underline a societal attitude that kids have it easy and are soft.

Finally, many comments focused on the choice a kid made in committing a crime.  If he can choose to commit a crime, then he must suffer the consequences.  However, this ignores data cited by the Supreme Court that indicates that 17-year old minors are simply not as capable as adults of making rational and mature “choices.”

#RaisetheAge campaigns might have made some progress in the past few years but if this small selection of comments is any indicator, a broad swath of society might not be on the same page.  Until norms and attitudes change, it could prove very difficult for any legal change to happen and even more difficult for those changes to have any effect.





New Texas Laws – School Citations for Class C Misdemeanors

some-texas-students-are-being-ticketed-and-sent-to-court-for-leaving-class-early-or-using-profanityDuring this past session, the Texas legislature enrolled several laws with the hope of significantly reducing the number of children charged with Class C Misdemeanors while at school (commonly referred to as student ticketing).  While these new laws seem to encourage schools to apply alternate methods for addressing student behavior, nothing actually prevents schools from continuing the practice of student ticketing. In other words, these new laws seem to be all BARK and NO BITE…

The new laws merely replace the word “citation” with the word “complaint.” School police officers cannot issue citations but can submit complaints. In a recent article, the Texas Tribune suggests that this will reduce the number of children charged, because the local prosecutor will have discretion “whether to charge the student with a Class C Misdemeanor” or not based on the complaint. This is misleading, because prosecutors always had complete discretion to charge or dismiss citations. Therefore, it is not clear how issuing complaints instead of citations will significantly reduce student ticketing.

To read the entire Texas Tribune article, click here:

To read the new laws, click here:

Photo Courtesy of The Week.

Wednesday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Juvenile Justice Without a Juvenile Jail, Sheridan Media

The jail was closed to juveniles in July 2012 after an increase in the number of adult inmates led Fremont County [Wyoming] to convert the juvenile wing to a women’s facility. In response to the situation, representatives of the Northern Arapahoe tribe have pushed harder than ever for a jail on the reservation, while the juvenile justice system throughout the county has put more effort into finding alternatives to jailing young people, especially for minor offenses.

When juveniles on the reservation do need to be placed behind bars, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) transports them to a facility in Busby, Mont., on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation . . . most often, according to a BIA officer who has made the trip, one (or sometimes two) of the reservation’s police officers must drop other duties to drive the full 12 hours to Montana and back. When the child’s presence is required in court, the BIA sends an officer to bring him back.

Because transportation is expensive and often hard to organize on short notice, juvenile probation violators who might have been detained nine months ago are often released to their families today. Aline Kitchin, juvenile probation supervisor for the Northern Arapahoe tribe, says the policy change has eroded some young people’s respect for the law . . .

Varn, the former [Fremont] county attorney who pushed many of the alternatives to detention during the past few years, remains sympathetic to the Native views.

“We never tried to tell the Tribal Court or anyone else on the reservation what they had to do,” Varn said. “At the same time, I hope they would achieve the same outcomes with their youth that we want. We want kids turning 18 without a criminal record.”

Keeping Teen Offenders in County-Run Lockups Would Save Cash: Not Everyone’s Sure it’s Wise, Dallas Observer Unfair Park

A new bill introduced in the Texas Senate would allow counties to open their own holding centers for juvenile law-breakers. Teenage offenders are currently held in lockups operated by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Senate bill 511, authored by state Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, would give counties the freedom to open their own.   According to the Austin American-Statesman, Whitmire said at a hearing Tuesday that each incarcerated juvenile costs the state $120,000 per year. Counties, he says, can keep them for half that amount . . .

Not everyone is a fan. “I hope to goodness it doesn’t get traction,” Judge William A. Mazur of the 304th Juvenile District Court in Dallas told Unfair Park. Mazur cautioned that, while the state would save money, the individual counties would be serving smaller populations, and that the smaller scale would make many of the services offered now too costly.

Texas rates of juvenile detention have declined in the past several years, as have the rates nationally. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s yearly Kids Count report, the number of “persons under age 21 detained, incarcerated, or placed in residential facilities” in Texas steadily declined from 8247 in 2006 to 5352 in 2010 . . . Texas still has the second highest population of incarcerated juveniles in the country. California is a distant first with 11,532.

Watch How Sad These CNN Reports are for Steubenville Rapists, MSN

[S]ee why the world is not amused with Poppy Harlow and Candy Crowley’s reporting of the conviction of Steubenville, Ohio, rapists Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond [17 and 16 years olds who raped an intoxicated 16 year old at a party]. . . Most people really aren’t focused on these boys’ A+ GPAs or the demise of their football careers, no matter how much they cry in court. Tweets are accusing the reporters of turning the clock back on feminism with their misplaced compassion and blame-the-alcohol banter. Some are labeling the women as rape apologists.