Thursday, November 12, 2009

A tough opinion to hold

James O. Born
I thought long and hard about this post before I wrote it. I tend to keep things light and easy to balance out the tougher days I have at work. Even my novels reflect things that I would like to be able to do as a police officer as opposed to things that really happen. Jim Grippando's post last Friday talked about a horrible event that had occurred down here in South Florida where one teenager was set on fire by a group of other teenagers. I look at crime trends across the country and realize things like this can happen virtually anywhere. It doesn't change the fact that crazy and nasty things happen in South Florida all the time.

I rarely take specific law enforcement positions on the blog because, frankly, I don't like debating people on opinions which took me years to reach based on actual contact with criminals and victims. Too often I’ve had people tell me what's wrong with police work or the criminal justice system when their only experience is reading newspapers or watching TV shows. I'm not saying police departments or the criminal justice system are perfect, clearly they are not. But contrary to what some people might think, everyone involved in that system from the cop on the beat to the underpaid public defender to the judge who could make more money in private practice, generally try to do their very best.

The reason I bring this up is that I saw a short news story on the same incident that Jim reported on last Friday. The young men who assaulted and burned the victim were going to be charged as adults. It is not uncommon for teenagers to be charged as adults in particularly heinous crimes. This occurred up here in Palm Beach County last year when a gang of youths broke into a woman's apartment, raped her and terrorized her and her young son for an entire night.

Anyone who's read this blog for any amount of time would probably not call me an extremist on either side (although I do admit to watching Chris Matthews every night) but this is an issue which my experience has taught me to be just as hard-core as possible. This is an opinion born of sorrow, fear and all the other base emotions which legislative powers have attempted to keep out of the courtroom since the country was founded.

I am in favor of charging teenagers as adults in vicious, violent crimes. That's it. I have no real flexibility in this personally. People will often try to talk me out of this position and, as I stated earlier, I'm not interested in a debate. Since this is a blog and not a debate I can state my reasons and you can accept them or ignore them as you please.

Advocates talk about charging teenagers as adults affecting their lives in a negative way. I do not deny that. But the second half of that equation is the need to protect citizens who are not prepared for the violence that some of these criminals are capable of. By letting teenagers slide for violent crime that shocks us and goes far outside the normal boundaries of society we are allowing them to return to walk among our own children who have not made the same choices they have. In my experience I have found that there is very little that can be done to turn around young people who have found it in themselves to use violence on a level that gets them charged as an adult. I would greatly prefer to protect young people who are working hard in school and trying to make a life for themselves than to release vicious criminals back into society prematurely.
Before I start getting e-mails I want to say that I am in no way infringing on a person's rights. I do not condone arresting the wrong people, though it happens, manufacturing evidence or forcing witnesses to make untrue statements. I am simply saying that charging young people as adults is more beneficial than it is detrimental to society in certain cases. Everyone knows an exception. An ambitious prosecutor who wants TV time. I’m talking about cases like the burning down here in Florida. There are a lot of instances where teenagers should be charged as adults. Society is changing and we need to stay ahead of the curve whether it’s intervention before they go off track so wildly or insuring that they don’t go it a second time..

I am not happy that I've been forced to take a position like this. I've been involved with young people in sports, our church, schools and in writing programs. I like being around young people and appreciate their views and optimism. It distresses me that depriving a young person of their freedom is ever necessary. But based on what I have experienced, it is.

Let the rancor fly.


  1. It does seem like a harsh stance but you have expressed your reasoning well.

    No one wants to admit we must give up on someone but it happens.

  2. Is there an age break for you? What about an eleven-year old tried as an adult for murder? Death penalty? Incarcerated for life with adult offenders? Just askin.

  3. I have to agree with you, Jim. I work with youthful offenders and it seems their only goal is to get out and cause havoc again.

  4. An intriguing, unsettling look at violent children is Jonathan Kellerman's SAVAGE SPAWN.

  5. A teen who can commit the kind of heinous crime you write about is damaged, no question. Can the damage be repaired? I don't believe there's any such evidence that it can, though we shouldn't stop looking.

    So society must take a stand to protect the innocent. I'm with you when it comes to charging as an adult, but I don't want to ever stop caring about a child that troubled.

    As for an age break; none of this is cut and dried. To have an answer without a case ignores the total impact of the crime on society and the individual victims.

    Thanks for some thought provoking moments. I'm going to do something happy now.


  6. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, Jim, for this honest post. Having just come back from the UK, where there is a significant problem with youth and indiscriminate violence, this is a real hot-potato issue that will have to be dealt with head-one sooner or later. Your post has set down your core beliefs based upon experiences and a level of responsibility that most of us would never want to take on. I remember reading the book "People of the Lie" by M. Scott Peck, about the presence of human evil. Sadly, a young person is just as capable of acts which can be interpreted as "evil" as their elders - and if we ignore that fact, it will be a disservice to the young offender and everyone who crosses paths with that person.

  7. James O. Born11/12/2009 3:22 PM

    Sorry for the late reply. Long day.
    Frank it does happen

    Patty, I think it is a case by case on the age but I can't say I've ever met a twelve year old that scared me that bad. That's not to say that if a twelve year old killed an elderly couple I wouldn't change my mind. In general I was thinking 14.

    I agree, Carson, let's get back to the fun.

    Jackie, This is a world wide problem . Worse in some countries.


  8. Merely because it IS a case by case basis, and DAs are wont to handle juveniles [with the sympathy vote] in a prudent manner.

    Hey, I am of the mindset that when someone crosses the line in such a premeditated and deliberate way [malice aforethought] they are either de facto insane or just evil....crimes of passion not withstanding.
    Certainly, there have been many many studies which indicate when a child is unable to a kid who is cruel to a defenseless animal, it is a road to disaster.

    I'll say this, though, Jim, they don't have this kindof mess in Singapore, I bet!

    I'm with you Jim.


  9. Reading this, I too thought about Jonathan Kellerman's "Savage Spawn", and how there are some people who cannot be reached or saved. It's sad and it's scary, but it's true.

    I can't argue with you, Jim. I taught high school, and I know that most kids, even the troubled ones, have good that can be reached, but there are some kids you just can't.

  10. In 1991, a co-worker of mine was murdered by her neighbors. Three teen girls, aged 12, 15 and 17 at the time, entered her home, beat and stabbed her to death and then hid her body in an upstairs closet. When they were finally arrested six months later (none of them had a criminal record, so the fingerprint evidence was of no help until they bragged about the killing at school) the DA thought about charging the 17-year-old as an adult, but decided against it because evidence showed that the 12-year-old was the ringleader and instigator of the crime. A reporter who attended the hearings told me that the three of them turned to look at him in court - he was the only non-family member permitted to observe the proceedings - and said that he had never seen such soul-less beings in his life, and that they absolutely terrified him. All three were sentenced to juvenile detention until the age of 25. I would have been perfectly comfortable seeing all three sentenced as adults.

  11. When you light another person on fire or a cat, dog or gerbil for that matter, at virtually any age a person capable of committing that act is capable of knowing that action is wrong. Period. We are talking psychopaths or at the very least sociopaths. These are the people that rape a girl for two hours outside her homecoming dance. Jeffery Dahmer's in training. The recidivism rate is virtually 100%. After you make a conscious decision to ignite another human being for your personal entertainment you need to be incarcerated forever or executed.

  12. I was hesitant to respond to this post. I think this topic and similar topics gets rather complex. It's related to this one: the death penalty. Because I am, quote-unquote, a "knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal," I'm opposed to the death penalty on principle. I would prefer that "civilized" society didn't respond to horrible crimes by committing another horrible crime. But...

    I remember hearing a crime story a decade or so ago of some morons who took some people hostage in a bank holdup. I think it was in Texas. As the hostage situation continued, the bad guys--apparently for no reason at all--forced their hostages to drink Drano, which was either a hideously painful way to die, or be maimed for life, assuming any of them survived.

    It was at this point that I considered the possibility that there are crimes so vicious and unwarranted that there really is no acceptable punishment. The perpetrators did not behave in any way that could be considered acceptably human. Why treat them as if they were?

    So although I still don't believe in the death penalty (or jailing minors for life) on principle, I accept that my view of law and order may be too narrow for real life to fit into it neatly.