MY DEVOTED (read “teenie”) READERSHIP has asked me, in the light of the recent sentencing of a teenager for murders in Townville, SC, my thoughts on sentencing youth as adults.
My own emotional and mental confusion leads me to answer, “A definite maybe.” As I’ve said, “If anyone says that he/she has the only answer, RUN!” And, that goes for evangelists, too.
Our Talmudic resources teach that one should analyze alternatives before offering an opinion. I am pretty sure that goes for thoughtful Christians and Humanists, as well.
Our typical answer – if you hadn’t already figured – is “It all depends.”
So, the first question is “What are the values of that particular penal system or society? Does it take on a basically “punitive” model, with punishment as the goal?
Or, does it take on a basically “restorative” model: punish, but at the same time open the door to freedom through therapy, literacy, education, job training, anger management, coping skills, work release, half-way programs, parole, intensive follow-through-and-up, etc. Give the best opportunity possible for the right inmates to reenter the community as productive citizens.
Even so, it’s still always a crap shoot. We cannot ensure the results; all we can do is stack the deck.
So, for the kid-murderer in question: Does the SC penal system offer opportunities for restoration as a young first-time offender, no matter how grievous the crime? Will he have a fresh start and the skills to reenter the community? Or is the system so punitive that whenever he goes free, he will either be the same as he was, or even more embittered, disillusioned, and hopeless?
What do you answer for SC?
If the answer is restorative, I say that the boy should be given every opportunity to reenter a productive life: Intensive psychiatric and psychological testing to assess the roots of his violence and determine whether he is a good candidate for reentry. Long-term psychotherapy and the proper meds must follow. [In the deepest throes of my own bipolarity about 14 years ago, I was not incarcerated, but I was subject to the same regimen, thankfully with the same results.], transitional programs, parole, intensive supervision.
If this is even partially so, he should be tried as a youthful offender. Then, with all reports in place, let him end incarceration at 18 (?) and work at resuming free adulthood.
On the other hand, if he is beyond therapy or restoration, just destined for more murder, he should be remanded to adult custody and subjected to the adult penal system and/or mental institution. Parole is always an eventual possibility. But,now treating him as an adult is not so much a punishment as the safest way to keep him away from guns and mayhem and us.
At the same time, I will tell you that my training in the sacred texts push me toward believing that adults and kids are inherently different in their emotional and moral compunction. And they are largely imperceptive to the causality between ill behavior and ill results. Thus, all things being equal, I would rather be inclined to have young people treated as young people with all the “card stacking” resources in place, then watch a bitter, angry kid morph into a hardened criminal before his time.
With another kid’s life at stake, it is so much more a complex issue. It cannot be managed with a quick yea-or-nay.
May we soon be spared of this kind of grief.
MARC HOWARD WILSON is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC.