Photo by Jesús Rodríguez on Unsplash

Cruelty of Treating

Children as Adults

Thank the stars that you are not a parent who lives in Albania where your 14-year-old son or daughter would be considered to be an adult and if he or she was charged with a crime, would be prosecuted as an adult.

Then again, some states in the U.S. are no better than Albania and some are even worse. Most states consider 18 to be the age when a juvenile is treated as an adult but three states, which should come as a surprise to no one, Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin, now consider anyone older than 16 to be an adult. Missouri raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 17 in 2018 and the law went into effect Jan. 1, 2021. Michigan raised the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 17 in 2019 and that law too, went into effect in 2021.

In 47 states, a juvenile is anyone 17 or younger. In 2020, Vermont became the first state in the nation to expand juvenile court jurisdiction to 18. In the U.S., 13 states have no minimum age for prosecuting a child as an adult, leaving eight-, nine-, and ten-­year-­old children potentially vulnerable. The states that have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults include Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

But children of any age in any state can be prosecuted as adults in capitol offenses. Such prosecutions are often driven by publicity and public vitriole and politics and demands for the harshest penalties even though juveniles are immature and impulsive, have not developed mature judgment, can’t accurately assess risks and consequences and are more vulnerable to peer pressure. Research also shows that as youths mature, they are substantially less likely to re-offend; locking children up for years will extend their incarceration well beyond the time needed for them to be rehabilitated.

Bias within the judicial and criminal justice system also makes young people of color more likely to be presumed guilty and dangerous and more often prosecuted as adults. These children are more often initially arrested for minor disciplinary infractions, as they enter the so-called “school to prison pipeline.”

A case in point involving a juvenile charged with a serious crime was the Nov. 30 arrest of Ethan Crumbley, a 15-year-old student at Oxford (Mich.) High School, for killing four classmates and wounding seven after his parents bought him a gun as an early Christmas present and they refused to respond to calls from the school about the child’s precarious mental health. It was the 34th school shooting in 2021, more than in any since at least 1999, according to a Washington Post database.

The youth faces multiple charges as an adult: one count of terrorism causing death, four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm. The incident again has triggered widespread national discussion over the rights of juveniles and gun control laws.

The boy’s parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley, also were arrested after they were found hiding in a commercial building in Detroit and are facing four counts of involuntary manslaughter after Mr. Crumbley gave his son an early Christmas present, a Sig Sauer 9mm pistol, on Black Friday, Nov. 26, a day after Thanksgiving and just four days before the shooting.

After the purchase but before the shooting, school authorities twice raised concerns about the youth’s behavior to his parents, prosecutors said, including in a meeting with them earlier in the day of the shooting. The Crumbleys refused to take their son home and did not ask him about the gun or inform the school that they had purchased it, according to prosecutors.

A day before the fatal shooting, a teacher noticed Ethan Crumbley using his cellphone to search for information on firearm ammunition. His mother did not respond when the school contacted her via voice mail about her son’s “inappropriate” search, prosecutors said. Instead, she exchanged a text message with her son that read, “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”

On the morning of the shooting, both parents were summoned to a meeting by school administrators after a teacher found a troubling note in their son’s desk, McDonald said. It contained a drawing of a semiautomatic handgun pointing at the words “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me.”

The note included a drawing of a bullet with the words “blood everywhere.” There was also a drawing of a bloody figure with two gunshot wounds, McDonald said, and another drawing of a laugh emoji. At no point did either parents mention the new gun. Two hours later, the rampage began.

Prosecutors across the country have previously prosecuted or sought to prosecute young children in adult court for serious crimes. In Pennsylvania, 11-year-old Jordan Brown was charged as an adult in the fatal shooting of his father’s girlfriend in 2009. South Carolina prosecutors charged 12-year-old Christopher Pittman as an adult in the killing of his grandparents. The boy was shown to have been under the influence of prescription antidepressants that altered his behavior but he was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 30 years.

In 1989, Joe Sullivan was 13 when he admitted to burglarizing a Florida woman’s home. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for raping the 72-year-old woman. Sullivan had severe intellectual disabilities and while in prison repeatedly suffered sexual violence and assaults at the hands of older inmates, a period of sustained physical abuse that experts believe may have partially caused the multiple sclerosis with which he is now diagnosed. Now 45, Sullivan, who is confined to a wheelchair, won a reduced sentence in 2009.



Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer

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