Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Essay: We Shouldn't Charge Children As Adults

Lake Effect essayist Paul Heinz believes the cycle of imprisonment ought not to start so early.

A child is not an adult. Even if we ignore recent research that concludes human brain development continues well into our 20s, there is long-held support that teenage brains are developing throughout adolescence.

And yet, when a crime is committed – particularly a horrifically violent crime – district attorneys seem hell-bent on charging children as adults. Alex Hribal, the 16-year-old knife-wielding student who attacked classmates and a security guard at a Pennsylvania high school last week, has been charged as an adult with four counts of attempted murder and 21 counts of aggravated assault.

But a 16-year-old is not an adult, and pressing charges as an adult does not change this fact. We don’t yet live in some Orwellian world in which two plus two equals five. Calling a child an adult does not – in fact – transform the child into an adult.

The idea behind the propensity to charge violent teens as adults is presumably to ensure that the perpetrator of the crime doesn’t get off easy, the way he might in a juvenile court. Sometimes this gets taken to extremes that most would find preposterous: in 2011, a 12-year old in Florida was charged as an adult for murder (a plea deal was reached last year that will keep him in a juvenile facility until he’s 19 years old).

If the concern is that juvenile courts are too lenient on violent offenders, then it would seem that juvenile courts need to change, but as this is probably a monumental task, prosecutors take the easy way out by - in effect - changing the definition of an adult. But if a 16 year-old truly has the faculties of an adult, then you can't change the definition simply to suit your own needs: you have to go all the way. A 16-year-old should then be able to smoke, drink, defend his country, participate as a juror, vote, create contracts, live independently of parental control, sue and make a will.

Would you like to stand trial before a jury of 12 16-year-olds? How about appear in court against a lawsuit filed by a 16 year-old?

I thought not.

Perhaps then, we shouldn’t be so quick to raise the ante by zealously charging a child whose brain is still wiring itself. It could be argued that the age that defines adulthood is somewhat arbitrary and that some leeway should be given to prosecutors to determine whether or not a child has matured to the extent required to be considered an adult. But that’s not how the courts work in any other circumstance. One cannot stand before a judge and argue that he should be allowed to smoke as a 16 year-old because he’s more mature than his peers.

If the goal is to ensure that a lengthy sentence be achieved, then why stop at charging Alex Hribal as an adult? Why not charge him as a black man? That ought to put him away for a long time. According to one study, black men serve jail sentences that are twenty percent longer than white men for the same crime.

But black is not white. Adults are not children. Two plus two does not equal five.

Paul Heinz is a writer, musician, and former Wisconsinite who now lives in the Chicago area.