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Justifiable Insanity

by J. Neil Schulman


In I, Mudd, a famous episode of the original Star Trek, a robot is confused into burning out its circuits by being given a logical paradox of the sort, "Everything I say is a lie. I am now telling the truth."

In an experiment as famous to college students as I, Mudd is to Trekkies, behavioral psychologists used repeated electrical shocks to induce psychosis in a laboratory animal by first conditioning the animal to avoid one part of its cage by repeated shocks when it sat there then randomly changing the location of the charge so the animal couldn't find a safe place to sit.

Within the past week we saw 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams charged as an adult in the murders of two students and shootings of 13 others at Santana High School in Santee, California. We also saw 14-year-old Lionel Tate sentenced to life without parole in Florida prison for the first-degree murder of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick, committed when he was twelve.

Both of these recent events reflect the dramatic shift, within my lifetime, of American attitudes toward the treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice system. When I was in school in the 1960's it was an unspoken given that the American criminal justice system was humane and modern in that we no longer hanged or imprisoned children, as was common as recently as the nineteenth century.

Instead, we regarded juvenile offenders to be worth saving. With a loving environment and regular psychoanalysis, they could be restored to society and given a second chance. A separate court and detention system was maintained for juvenile offenders in which they would be given schooling and therapy until they were adults, then their records would be expunged and they would be released with a fresh start.

Even for adults, liberals used to argue for compassion and rehabilitation in our criminal justice system. We no longer had prisons; we had "penitentiaries." The root word "penitence" united the Christian and the Freudian liberal in a desire not to compound the loss to a crime victim's life with further loss inflicted upon the misguided "offender," who was assumed to be salvageable.

Today, the above attitudes seem both quaint and ludicrously impractical to most Americans, usually regarded as an atavistic artifact of a progressive utopianism discredited by harsh reality. We have seen inner-city drug-selling gangs where elder gang members, playing the law like a violin, direct their youngest gang members to commit the most serious crimes, knowing that if caught they won't be charged as harshly.

After the Columbine High School massacre and other school shootings, murder, even mass murder, by teenagers is no longer unthinkable; and we have even seen children as young as seven being tried for murder.

In today's political climate, no mainstream political figure wants to be perceived as soft on crime. Liberals have conceded the criminal-justice playing field to conservatives, pausing only occasionally on sentencing inequities caused by race, or an occasional weak libertarian objection to excessive sentencing for victimless crimes, and the usual trumpeting for more gun control. Along with an attitude of "zero tolerance" towards adult criminals has come a belief that if you commit an adult crime, you should be tried as an adult no matter what your age.

The problem with this last belief is that it is wildly inconsistent with every other attitude we have about children and young adults.

Nobody who declares that a juvenile offender who commits an adult crime, and should therefore be tried and punished as an adult, turns around and suggests that a 12-year old who can pass a driver's test should be licensed to drive.

Nobody suggests that an 11-year-old boy who can write computer code should be allowed to quit the fifth grade and go to work full-time for Microsoft.

Nobody who would want us to imprison a 13-year-old girl who shoots her classmates would want any of her non-criminal 13-year-old classmates to be legally able to consent to sex with a 25-year-old man she meets in a bar, hop in his car to marry him at the Chapel O' Love in Vegas, pull the lever on a slot machine while she's waiting for the minister, buy a pack of Camels and smoke one, and sign the mortgage for a condo in The Lakes.

Am I really the only person in this public policy discussion who sees the inconsistency, the double standard, the hypocrisy -- the blatant injustice? We are to take a person considered too young, too inexperienced, too lacking in judgment -- not an adult by any other measurement or standard -- and treat that person as an adult for the purposes of punishing them, because nobody running for office can risk looking "soft on crime."

My father's mother, Anna, was born in 1890. She was married to my grandfather, Abraham, in 1903 and had her first baby, my uncle Bernard, in 1904. My grandfather was born in 1878. According to his autobiography, he started working as a construction laborer while still a child, came to America by himself when he was 16, and by the time he married my grandmother he was a prosperous businessman in the New York garment industry.

Do the math. At age 25 my grandfather impregnated a 13-year-old girl. By today's legal standards my grandfather was a child molester who would have spent many years in prison and my grandmother would have been forbidden ever to see him again. This would have made it more difficult for me to be writing this, because my father was my grandparents' fifth child.

I constantly hear that things were different then and we can't apply the same standards today. That is certainly true. For all of human existence, up until the last few minutes, you were an adult when you could biologically reproduce. Older children had family responsibilities and younger children were given whatever responsibilities they could handle for their age. By the time you turned 13 you were an adult for all intents and purposes except, perhaps, for voting, which was considered an exceptionally important duty reserved only to elders and other wiser heads. You will find no shortage of 14-year-old boys in the annals of war; today if a teenager brings a construction-paper gun to class he is suspended from school.

We have abandoned standards regarding the transition from childhood to adulthood that served the human race well for countless millennia and replaced them with arbitrary standards based on utopian theories that for the most part have already been abandoned; yet the standards live on.

We infantalize adults, depriving them of all rights and powers; then declare that they are adult enough to be punished when they outrage us. We replace tests of adulthood based on accomplishment or ability with arbitrary, one-size-fits-all ageism; then wonder why every once in a while the most gifted and sensitive among us go crazy and decide to kill as many of the rest of us as they can manage.

If a dog can be driven insane by inconsistent patterns of electrical shocks, why are we surprised when teenagers are driven insane by an inconsistent patchwork of rules which treat them as an infant in one moment and an adult the next?

The last thing we would want to admit is that the vigilante judgment of fifteen-year-old Charles Andrew Williams, that everyone he encountered at school was representative of a criminally insane society and deserved to be put out of their misery, might have more than a grain of truth to it.

J. Neil Schulman March 9, 2001

"The other rain is sunshine." --J. Neil Schulman, July 21, 2000


Printer Version

The NRA has a point about the inadvisability of simply taking guns away from the populace. If that were possible, it would not disarm that small percentage of the population willing to break the law.... Punishing people who obey the law is backward thinking. Hugh Downs, Veteran ABC newsman

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