Juvenile justice, when ignored or misapplied, doesn’t keep us safer. Prevention, care and treatment — not adult punishment — are keys to saving children.
The decision by Wisconsin to charge a 10-year-old girl as an adult after her actions tragically led to the death of an infant late last year raises serious questions about the status — and progress — of criminal justice reform across the country.
Incidents of children this young committing homicide are rare. But when they happen, they rock communities and test our collective will to remain steadfast in the belief that there is no such thing as a bad kid.
These are horribly tragic events, but our government systems should not compound that tragedy by throwing a child in need of rehabilitation into an adult system that is often focused only on punishment.
Trauma plays a role; brain still developing
In this particular case, law enforcement reported that the young girl dropped an infant and then, after the 6-month-old started crying, panicked and struck the baby again by stomping on his head.
The 10-year-old girl was said to have had a history of trauma and was deemed incapable of fully grasping the consequences of her behavior. During a recent court appearance, the judge in the case found her incompetent to stand trial. An expert says the child may eventually become competent if placed in a stable, non-traumatic environment.
Yet, the state is not only moving forward with charging her — but they are charging her as an adult.
America has been attempting to improve how it judges and, ultimately, cares for at-risk youth for generations. More than a century ago, Father Edward J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, traveled the country to advocate for and give a voice to dozens of young boys who were being prosecuted as adults for serious crimes, including murder. Since Flanagan’s day, our country has made great strides in improving the way children are treated and valued.
Unfortunately, we have not come far enough.
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Sometimes, a history of trauma or mental illness can lead children to do things that their developing brains can’t fully comprehend. When that happens, modern brain science reveals definitively that a child is different from an adult and should be treated as such. It’s the reason that our nation appropriately developed a juvenile justice system, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed many times that children are not just miniature grown-ups.
‘Tough on crime’ doesn’t work
In recent years, states such as Louisiana, New York and North Carolina have raised the age for which teens may be automatically charged as adults for crimes. And we are seeing different approaches for cases in which younger children have harmed or killed someone.
In New Hampshire, for example, an 11-year-old boy shot and killed two adults. In March, the boy was charged as a juvenile — a decision that will hopefully get the child the help and support that he needs.
Proponents of a “tough on crime” stance argue that while these violent cases are rare, the children who commit them are already criminals. But charging children as adults does nothing to deter future crimes, restore communities or promote safety.
There is a better way. Teachers can provide care grounded in a principle that there’s no such thing as a bad child, only bad environments. Prevention and early intervention work. Children from the most terrible circumstances can turn their lives around and become healthy, productive, contributing members of society.
When those opportunities are missed, family-style, therapeutic, trauma-responsive environments can meet the needs of children, even those who some people think should be locked in a prison cell.
Stories of children hurting others are heart-wrenching. Nonetheless, society must keep moving toward effective solutions that focus on treating kids like kids. Decision-makers must follow scientific research and choose redemption and rehabilitation. Given the right interventions and support, no child is beyond hope.
Father Steven Boes is executive director of Boys Town, a national, nonprofit child care agency that provides compassionate treatment for the behavioral, emotional and physical problems of children and families.