Kids Don’t Think Like Adults & We Shouldn’t Treat Them Like Adults Either
By: James Dold
“We all do stupid things at 17,” Donald Trump, Jr. said, referring to the actions of a 17-year-old child in Kenosha, Wisconsin, over the summer who is now facing the prospect of life in prison. Mr. Trump is absolutely right — many teenagers do stupid things sometimes. But no matter what they do, disregarding their humanity and child status by sending them to prison for the rest of their life is never an appropriate response. It is a human rights abuse.
That is not to take away from the collective grief and sorrow and mourning we should all feel at the loss of any human life. We should condemn violence in all its forms, pray for the victims, their families, and our country. Life is sacred and precious, which is why we have to do better as a country to value and protect it. As individuals and as a community, we must reject any efforts or tendency to regress to a culture of violence.
At the same time, when it comes to holding children accountable for their actions we have to understand that their perception of events and potential threats are fundamentally different from adults. This stems from their neurophysiological immaturity. Children’s brains are not fully developed. As a result, they are impetuous, easily influenced, prone to irrational decision-making, and oblivious to the long-term consequences of their actions. These biological differences highlight the dangers in holding children to the same standards as adults and is the rationale underlying the creation of the juvenile justice system. But, unfortunately, too many jurisdictions turn a blind eye to these innate limitations when a child commits a serious crime. In Wisconsin, for example, children 10 years of age or older who are charged with first degree murder are automatically tried as adults. That’s correct. Fourth and fifth grade elementary school children can be sentenced to die in prison.
The failure of the criminal justice system to account for child status has resulted in the systematic abuse of the human rights of children stretching back decades. This child, like many others, made a terrible decision. But that decision shouldn’t cost him his life or decades behind bars. He will not be the first child strong-armed by Wisconsin’s inhumane criminal justice policies either. Two 12-year-old girls were charged as adults with attempted murder in another sensationalized media case resulting in their decades-long commitment to a mental institution. The Kenosha County District Attorney also recently saw fit to charge a 17-year-old child sex trafficking victim with murder after she killed her sex trafficker and rapist.
These child rights abuses are not isolated incidents, nor are they confined to the state of Wisconsin. Far too often children all over America are thrown to the mercy of a system that was never designed with them in mind. Despite their inability to understand concepts like self-defense, the foreseeability of the consequences of their actions, or how to exercise their constitutional rights, their child status is ignored at every phase of the criminal justice system resulting in false confessions, lengthy prison sentences, placement in adult jails and prisons, torture through the use of solitary confinement, and physical and sexual abuse at the hands of of older adult prisoners.
When tragedies like Kenosha happen, all reason seems to disappear. The collective grief and sorrow generated by this heart-breaking taking of human life too often gives rise to unbridled bloodlust. But in times of national strife, suffering, and mourning, it is imperative that we not lose ourselves and the shared values we all hold dear. While it is far easier to retreat to our respective corners full of anger and rage, pointing the finger at one another for the current state of national discourse and the wounds from the injustices on our streets that never seem to heal, we must come together with a renewed sense of common purpose and dedication.
The tragedies of this summer have further illuminated the urgent need for reforming the criminal justice system in general, where the value we place on human life seems to have been forgotten. We must re-examine our approach to law enforcement including how, why, and under what circumstances lethal force may be used. We must also re-examine our treatment of law enforcement including proper staffing, training and providing them with clear and realistic expectations. Too often children are caught in the cross-fire of our worst failures. Tamir Rice, Jeremy Mardis, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones are just a few of the dozens of children who have been killed during police shootings. Not to mention the trauma experienced by children who witness these incidents.
We must not allow the polarized times in which we live to degrade our humanity to the point where we rationalize the inhumane treatment of children in the justice system. If we continue down our current path, the most vulnerable among us will continue to suffer. And as is the case in any conflict, it is our children who will suffer most. As Nelson Mandela said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” For their sake, let us make an effort to listen and understand, to be compassionate, and to extend grace and love to one another, thereby allowing our collective values to be a beacon of light for all Americans during these dark times.