Kids and Crime
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RAY SUAREZ: Now two perspectives on juveniles and the adult criminal justice system. Linda Collier is a practicing attorney and professor of criminal justice at Cabrini College. And James Fox is a criminologist and the Lipman family professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. Linda Collier, your reaction to the verdict?
LINDA COLLIER, Cabrini College: Well, I think the judge missed a prime opportunity to do some good. He had an opportunity to transform this young man from a bad situation into a better situation. And he’s actually giving some trust to a system that’s been derelict in its duties for so very long to improve itself within eight years. I don’t have that kind of confidence. And I think that he should have given him a blended sentence.
RAY SUAREZ: James Fox, your reaction?
JAMES FOX, Northeastern University: I was surprised by the sentence — pleasantly surprised. This was a bold move by the judge to be sure — working against the trend in America of sending more and more kids into the adult system. They don’t belong them most of the time. They may look like adults, they may act like adults; they may even shoot like adults. But they think like children. And we shouldn’t forget that fact. I, too, had expected a blended sentence; that is, that he would be sentenced to a juvenile facility until the age of 18 to 21 and then be evaluated thereafter to determine if he needed more time in an adult prison. That’s what the prosecution was pushing for. However, when we look at 10 years for second-degree murder, nationally adults average 11.5 years for second-degree murder. This is not just a slap on the wrist. It’s the appropriate sentence given the crime.
RAY SUAREZ: Linda Collier this, was mentioned in the report that this was not young Nathaniel’s first run-in with the law –
LINDA COLLIER: Exactly.
RAY SUAREZ: — but he had never been arrested, processed or punished in the juvenile system before. In his sentencing statement, the judge said the people of Michigan had failed Nathaniel Abraham.
LINDA COLLIER: Exactly. I do agree with that. As I said, our criminal justice system has really been derelict in its duties for setting up a system where young men have to answer and be accountable. I think that the judge could have transformed him by putting him into a blended sentence, giving us the opportunity — and I agree with Mr. Fox, that the system right now as it is situated, the old system, the adult system, would not be able to rehabilitate this young man. And I’m not calling for that. But I am calling for something better, something different. Even a boot camp situation would have been better than what the judge has given him in detention.
RAY SUAREZ: James Fox, one of the Michigan legislators who helped get this new law passed said that when you play the numbers game, you always lose. If you set it at 15, somebody will bring you a case involving a 14-year-old. If you set it at 14, someone will bring you a case involving a 13-year-old. What do we know about the age of responsibility?
JAMES FOX: Well, we do know, and there’s even some neurological evidence that the portion of the brain that controls reasoning ability does not develop until late adolescence or maybe even early adulthood. Eleven-year-olds simply do not have the capacity to think things through. Yes, I do believe despite his limited reasoning power and perhaps the possibility that he is retarded — mildly — I do believe he knew what he was doing. But kids simply don’t have the same ability to sort of think things through the way that adults can.
We need to punish juvenile offenders and punish juvenile murderers but they’re not the same as adults and they shouldn’t be treated the same as adults. We need a lesser degree of criminal responsibility. Let’s not forget that. What we need to do is to go back to what we did before. Let juvenile court judges decide which kids are so beyond the possibility of rehabilitation, that they should be tried as adults. Most kids can be rehabilitated if we try, and they should be kept in the juvenile system. If you want to make the juvenile system more punitive, fine. But just don’t throw it away. Let’s not pretend that 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds are adults. They’re not.
RAY SUAREZ: Linda Collier, can we ever, very accurately, set that number somewhere between 11 and 21?
LINDA COLLIER: Oh, I think we would honestly be arbitrary if we did try to set a certain number. I think that what we need to do at this point is to look at the system, see what works. It’s been proven by all the sociology persons that if you have attachments to certain institutions, you have religion in your life, you have school in your life, you have family in your life, you have people who are there encouraging you to do good and be successful, then you have a recipe for success, for bringing juveniles around and for making sure that they don’t engage in criminal activity. I think with those things lacking in Nathaniel Abraham’s life, I don’t think that we’re going to come out eight years from now and say OK, this child has been rehabilitated; let’s just throw him back into society and be satisfied with the result. We need to give him something more.
RAY SUAREZ: But his own mother had asked local authorities to — about having him declared an incorrigible. She was clearly looking for help. Do we have to also set our focus wider than just an individual suspect and their terrible crime — looking at other places in the system?
LINDA COLLIER: Oh, sure. I think that there need to be preventive measures. I don’t think that we need to wait until somebody commits such a heinous crime and then gets the criminal justice system involved. I think it has been proven time and time again even with the case in New Jersey, where the kid had killed 11-year-old or 13-year-old Eddie Warner, that the criminal justice system needed to be involved long before that child was murdered. But we don’t have the mechanisms in place to address those kinds of problems. And we need to put those mechanisms in place. And we need to be able to monitor our children, to make sure they get what they need to succeed.
RAY SUAREZ: James Fox.
JAMES FOX: What we really need to do is to build the child rather than try to rebuild the teenager.
LINDA COLLIER: That’s true.
JAMES FOX: We do know that prehabilitation works better than rehabilitation.
LINDA COLLIER: That’s right.
JAMES FOX: If you look at some of the bills that are going through the Congress and the many state legislatures, prevention and punishment is out of whack. There has been so much more emphasis on punishment. After all, it’s the politically expedient position to take. Yet, we know that prevention does work. It may not always been popular politically but it does work. We need to invest more money in prevention and save punishment for the sad cases where the system fails.
RAY SUAREZ: But aren’t sentences, James Fox, supposed to work on more than one level, both responding to the individual crime and the individual defendant, and sending a message to the wider community about the judgment of the court about the seriousness of the crime, and reassuring people that they take crime seriously?
JAMES FOX: Well, of course, to the family of Ronnie Green, it doesn’t matter at all whether the person who pulled the trigger was 11 or 41. He’s still dead, and we have to understand that and empathize with the family, that the age of the perpetrator makes no difference. Yet we also, as a society, have to take the view — what kind of perpetrator are we talking about? Eleven-year-olds are not the same as 41-year-olds in terms of their capacity to reason things through.
As far as deterrence, sending a message, we do know that long prison sentences given to juveniles do not deter other juveniles. Kids don’t think about consequences for themselves much less for their victims. Many of these kids don’t perceive that they’re going to live past the age of 21 anyway, so why worry about long-term prison sentences.
Deterrence may work with adults; it doesn’t really work with kids. The best that we can do is really to invest much more money in prevention programs, prevention strategies for kids and in the cases where kids commit horrible crimes, take on it a case-by-case basis, decide which kids have culpability, full culpability and should be tried as adults because of their long criminal record that they have proven that they are not rehabilitatable, versus other kids who can be turned around and should be kept in the juvenile system.
I think we should have discretion in the hands of the judges the way we used to and not allow legislators to take all the discretion away and decide ahead of time which categories of kids, which categories of crime are going to be sent into the adult court.
RAY SUAREZ: Linda Collier, the judge in this case had wide discretion even with the new Michigan law.
LINDA COLLIER: Exactly. That’s why I said I think he missed his opportunity. Trying Nathaniel Abraham in adult court gave him the opportunity to actually give him an elongated sentence. Juvenile court, of course, the sentence is going to be very brief. And that’s exactly what the judge did. He basically acted as though he was trying a juvenile case in juvenile court, gave him a very brief sentence of eight years, something that doesn’t make him truly accountable in my opinion since he did take someone else’s life.
RAY SUAREZ: But do you agree with James Fox that deterrence doesn’t work with juveniles?
LINDA COLLIER: Sometimes deterrence doesn’t work, Ray, with adults, and I recognize that. But I do think preventive measures — as I alluded to before — with making certain institutions responsible for children’s behavior — religion, the family and the schools and institutions of that sort — I think that would help. It would at least prevent some of the more heinous crimes if we make a child feel invested in his community, as though he is losing something or as though he is taking something away. I don’t think Nathaniel felt as though he took anything away from anybody, whether it was a robbery or a murder or whatever. I think he just — he basically dismissed the heinousness of his crime.
JAMES FOX: That’s because he’s 11. Three years ago the state legislature in Michigan opened the floodgates said, OK, you can be tried as an adult no matter how young you are. And in 1999, when the decision was made whether to send Nathaniel to adult court or juvenile court, that may have been where the mistake was made, to treat him as an adult.
LINDA COLLIER: Oh, I don’t think so.
JAMES FOX: What the judge did in this case, I think, was to rectify the mistake made when he was charged in adult court rather than juvenile court. He is 11-years-old. He belongs in juvenile court and he belongs — he deserves to receive a juvenile sentence.
LINDA COLLIER: But, James, he has a mental capacity of a 6-year-old. In eight years he’ll only have the mental capacity of perhaps an 11-year-old. What’s going to happen then? We’re not going to go back and reevaluate him. We’re just going to basically wash our hands, throw him back into the system and whatever crime happens, happens. But we’re done. And that’s unfortunate because I don’t think we need to be done. I think this kid deserves our interest. He deserves our attention. And we should stick with him and try to help him transform a very bad situation into a better one if we can.
RAY SUAREZ: Linda Collier, James Fox, thank you both for being with us.
LINDA COLLIER: You’re welcome. Thanks, Ray.