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VOICES / A Forum for Community Issues | Essay

Juvenile Justice Sometimes Is Best

August 05, 2000|BILL STAMPS | Bill Stamps is a probation officer in Los Angeles County

About 15 years ago, I supervised a very young 14-year-old boy who had killed his mother's lover. It was a horrible death. The victim was set on fire and burned alive. What this young man did was barbaric, but he was not a "true" criminal.

Fortunately for him, the court recognized his immaturity and committed him to a juvenile residential treatment program. After about three years, he returned to the community, where he subsequently graduated from high school and college. He was determined to turn his life around. This minor was one of the few bright spots in my long career of working with delinquent youths. However, not every case is the same, and what should be done with children who kill is not an easily answered question.

In July, there were several cases in Southern California involving juveniles and murder. A 15-year-old girl in Rialto admitted to killing a 72-year-old woman on a whim, police said. In La Crescenta, a 15-year-old boy was arrested in the brutal deaths of two teenagers. In Pico Rivera, a 16-year-old girl and her high school boyfriend were arrested in the stabbing deaths of her adoptive father and three adoptive siblings. Should these teenagers be tried as adults? Maybe, but we don't have enough information to make a professional judgment call. Each case must be handled individually.

It might be instrumental to look at the case of 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill of West Palm Beach, Fla., who in May allegedly shot and killed a teacher. Supposedly Brazill, after being sent home for throwing water balloons in his classroom, took a handgun he had stolen from his grandfather few days earlier, went back to school and shot his teacher. It was the last hour on the last day of school. Brazill, an honor student, had dreams of becoming a Secret Service agent.

The $64,000 question is how should he now be prosecuted. After all, at 13, he is yet a child. Because of the seriousness of the offense, many want him tried as an adult. If he were prosecuted as a juvenile, he probably would be remanded to some type of residential treatment program and held in a juvenile institution until he turned 21. However, if he is indicted as an adult on first-degree murder charges, according to Florida law, he could face life in prison without parole. This is a huge difference.

With the rise of gang wars and teenage violence over the last few decades, there has been an increasing demand for teenage criminals to be prosecuted as adults, especially those convicted for violent crimes. California voters passed Proposition 21 in March, giving prosecutors more authority to try juveniles as adults. Many people in the community have grown weary of what they feel is an antiquated, weak and ineffective juvenile justice system.

However, the prevailing philosophy within the juvenile justice system has been rehabilitation over punishment: protecting the public while simultaneously protecting child offenders. Most states want to give children every possible chance at rehabilitation before remanding them to the adult system.

Generally, when considering "adult justice," the major problem is trying to determine when a child is beyond rehabilitation. When is a crime so heinous, or a child so criminally hardened or sophisticated that the adult system is the only choice? Today, most states have developed some type of criteria to help make these decisions. In California, a juvenile must be at least 14 to be prosecuted as an adult. The individual also must be considered criminally sophisticated and have committed at least one of a prescribed list of felony offenses, e.g., murder, rape, carjacking, etc.

Brazill would not fit the criteria in most states for prosecuting a minor as an adult. According to published reports, he was an outstanding student with a perfect attendance record. He apparently had no gang ties or criminal history. He was liked by his classmates and, from all indications, was a good student with a supportive home life. He is an anomaly. By no means does he fit the criminal profile.

Nathaniel Brazill committed a horrible crime. What he did was reprehensible and inexcusable. No matter the outcome, he will have to live with what he did the rest of his life. However, he should not be prosecuted as an adult. The juvenile justice system is definitely more suitable to his needs. Let's not, for the sake of politics and political correctness, commit a greater sin by purposely destroying another life.

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