Wednesday, September 8, 2010
In August, a 13-year-old Jacksonian was charged with aggravated assault for shooting a 17-year-old friend in the head. Thankfully, the friend lived.
Police charged the tween as an adult for aggravated assault—essentially the closest our state has come to an attempted-murder charge. Police said the younger man was "playing with" the gun and pointed it at his friend's head.
Juvenile-justice research proves that charging a minor as an adult is counter-productive in a society that supposedly would like to be safer. Should the young man be convicted, he would receive little or no education, mental health treatment or rehabilitation in adult prison. He likely would be sexually abused in prison. He would have an adult criminal record limiting his future options. And, he is more likely to re-offend once he is exposed to adult prisons. A 2001 analysis in Florida showed that youths convicted as adults were 4.90 times more likely to re-offend than had they been sent to the youth system.
But that wasn't the only wrong in this case. Following the arrest, Jackson-based media outlets, including The Clarion-Ledger, reported the incident, naming both the 13-year-old and the victim, presumably because the police named them. Why not?
There are plenty of reasons why not. It is dangerous for police or the media to identify children charged with crimes, especially that young, without very precise reasons for doing so. And clearly there are no reasons in this case: The young man was not on the run and dangerous to an unsuspecting public, and there is no indication that it was even meant to be a crime.
The details of the case, as released so far, indicate that the young man may be found not guilty if he is ever tried. But he has already been convicted in the media, meaning he is more likely to commit crimes in the future. And it is quite possible that he did not commit the crime; the witnesses could have lied. In an infamous 1998 Chicago case, two boys (ages 7 and 8) were charged with murder of an 11-year-old girl. The case looked open and shut, and they "confessed." Their pictures were splattered all over the media. Weeks later, a journalist proved their innocence, and police figured out an adult had killed her.
But the damage was done for those children. It's hard enough for adults to be falsely accused and have their pictures on page one (the follow-up story that they were falsely arrested are often buried if there at all). For children, it can be devastating.
In the old days before media became so corporate that they feed every sensationalist whim, responsible journalists would not have identified this 13-year-old. Now, neither police nor editors seem to give it a second thought.