No, he’s not an adult. None of them are . . .

July 12, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

Another headline, another senseless tragedy. During a week full of them, this one hardly caused a blip on my radar, except that it happened here. First I read that a group of teens forced a boy to watch his mother repeatedly raped, then have sex with her himself at gunpoint. An 11-yr.-old girl took the car during her family’s vacation, got drunk and raced away from police, crashing and getting arrested for DUI.

Here in St. Louis, a 12-yr.old boy stabbed and killed a 13-yr.-old girl. The crime is getting much local press, first because the family allegedly called the police more than once earlier in the day about the boy causing trouble. Second, because the court is considering trying the boy as an adult.

My first thought was, “Good, the little bastard will get what he deserves.”

This evening, though, when I again saw the headline flash across my computer screen, the absurdity of that potential decision caught in my throat and gave me chills.

I have a 12-yr.-old child. An adult?? No way. A child, a tween. A partially-formed adult, but not whole, not yet.

A kid. Not one growing up in poverty in the middle of the drug-and-gun culture like this boy, but one loved and nurtured who attends a great school where strong emphasis is placed on interpersonal skills and intrapersonal knowledge. She is smart and funny and beautiful and charismatic – and moody and short-tempered and whiny. She can cut short an articulate explanation of why kids should be allowed to vote to screech at her little sister for daring to touch HER bottle of neon green nail polish even though she left it in the middle of the floor and said sister is merely putting it on the table.

She knows how to make good decisions . . . and still can’t always stop herself from making bad ones. Because she is a child. Because her brain is not fully developed, her self-control not yet in place and her life experience is, let’s face it, not enough yet.

Sometimes when I am feeling frustrated with her, when no amount of calm logic seems able to cut through her irrational moods, I have to consciously remind myself that she is NOT a small adult. She can generate pearls of wisdom, flashes of brilliant depth in her thinking and has a larger vocabulary than many adults I know. She thinks she’s as smart and mature as an adult, and sometimes even I am fooled – but she is still a child. And were I to forget that, I’d be a pretty ineffective parent.

Even with all the skills she has and all the love and support in her life, she cannot function as an adult. She makes mistakes that most adults would not, because, as I believe I mentioned, she is a still child.

Now, I am in no way saying that her mistakes come anywhere close to murder. She has never erred in any kind of violent way. Well, not THAT kind of violent. I can’t compare my daughter and this boy in any significant way other than their ages. Some might even say this boy is closer to adulthood than she, simply by virtue of street smarts. He’s from the “mean streets,” forced to grow up too fast by experiences no child should have to endure. I would argue that those experiences are precisely why he is incapable of thinking and acting like an adult. He very likely missed out on the kind of childhood best suited to sane adulthood. Role models? Decent education? Unconditional love? Doubtful he’s had much of any of that.

The 12-yr.-olds I know, full of budding maturity and brilliant flashes of insight and the raw material of incredible adults – they’ve all had those important pieces of childhood. And still, they are not ready to be tossed into the world of adults.

To try this boy as an adult would be wrong, utter insanity. To try him as adult, with the goal of the prosecution to see his life spent in prison, would be to brand him hopeless before he even hits his teens. We the people would be saying that who he is at 12 is it, the final version, a fully developed human being completely culpable for all of his actions, fully cognizant of all consequences. Did he know that stabbing someone was dangerous, potentially lethal? Of course he did. Did he purposefully take this action? Apparently so. Was it wrong? Well, certainly it was – horribly, tragically, senselessly wrong.

Should he be held accountable for his actions? Absolutely. Does he have a very long and difficult road ahead of him? Without question. Are the chances of him turning his life around good? No, probably not. Doubtful even. But is it possible? Should we give up on him already? Is he really ready to be held as accountable for his actions as a full-grown adult?

No. I say he absolutely is not. He obviously needs help, is a troubled and dangerous soul. But no matter what, he is only 12. He is a child. Someone, somewhere – a parent???? – must shoulder some of the blame for this child’s misguided behavior, irrational anger and inability to solve problems without violence. I’m not suggesting that his family be put on trial, but I’d hate to see any child tossed out into the harshest of adult worlds and never given the chance to redeem himself.

I’ve learned, as the parent of two tweens, that they see the world in black and white – good and bad, right and wrong – and have yet to develop the skills to see nuance, to understand gray areas. My daughter and her friends are utterly appalled that ANYONE would be so stupid as to smoke or take drugs. They are bad, period. Yet I know that within a few short years, some of that group will be have started smoking and some will have experimented with drugs or sex. They will get lost in the gray area, the fiction of their own invincibility, the confusion of the world as their firmly held childhood beliefs are questioned and turned upside down. As they mature, their brains will expand through a last giant growth spurt, more powerful even than the growth spurt of toddlerhood when we watched them learn at an exponentially fast rate. And when they come out on the other side, they will reach adulthood, still young, still naive, but ready to be held fully accountable for all of their actions.

If we begin trying 12-yr.-olds, ANY 12-yr.-olds, as adults, the ramifications of that thinking will be grave. Just because children of the new millennium are crammed full of information and expected to regurgitate more facts than any past generation, and just because they are exposed to more “mature content” than anyone growing up before them – none of that means that they are no longer children, that their brains don’t still have much growing to do.

This boy needs to be held accountable – as a child. He needs intense intervention, therapy and help. Can you even imagine what would happen to a young thing like him, were he to be tried as an adult and tossed into prison? I can’t.


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Category: American Culture, Civil Rights, Current Events, Psychology Cognition, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

I am a writer and communication professional in St. Louis, Missouri, a crafter of jewelry, a disorganized optimist and most importantly, the adoptive mom of two China-born daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    It doesn't have to do with mental faculties. It has to do with disgusted, enraged people that just want to see someone pay for the deplorable actions they've seen some 12-year-olds commit. These same people argue for the death penalty by saying "If someone killed YOUR mother, wouldn't YOU want the son of a bitch to fry?" It comes from a rash emotional judgement, no concern over rehabilitation or fairness. Nevermind that these 12-year-olds don't have the mental capacity of an adult. It doesn't matter if someone has mental retardation or severe mental disorders. It just feels so good to strike down upon someone with vengance, doesn't it? None of that namby-pampy, excusing talk about how they couldn't control themselves.

    Because in all truth, if the punishment we doled out represented a person's self-control, we could barely even give a 17-year-old life in prison. Up until about 18, teens can tell "right" from "wrong", they can see the consequences of their actions in the long term, but they just can't exert self-control nearly as well as a true adult. But it feels so much better to wave them off as evil, hopeless mini-adults with no healthy future, and cast them from society forever.

  2. Mindy Carney says:

    You are exactly right, Erika. And the truth of the matter most probably is that a whole bunch of adults have miserably failed this boy along the way to his becoming a murderer. Parents who either weren't there or didn't care or were children themselves trying to raise a child, teachers who passed him through the system just to be done with one more troublemaker, older siblings who showed him how to get high and use a weapon, neighbors who looked the other way when he beat up somebody else's kid. Any or all of them, of us, are responsible.

    He may be ultimately just . . . bad. Not able to be rehabilitated. Non-feeling, non-caring, hopeless. But I can't fathom that we can know that at age 12.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    I've read articles in the past three years whjich indicate that full adult development of the brain doesn't occurr until around age 25. To posit that any 12 year old is an "adult" is insane.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Mindy: I thought you might be interested in the criteria used for certifying a child to stand trial as an adult. They vary from state to state, though Missouri's (the one's I'm pasting below) are representative of the types of things the courts consider:

    A written report shall be prepared in accordance with this chapter developing fully all available information relevant to the criteria which shall be considered by the court in determining whether the child is a proper subject to be dealt with under the provisions of this chapter and whether there are reasonable prospects of rehabilitation within the juvenile justice system. These criteria shall include but not be limited to:

    (1) The seriousness of the offense alleged and whether the protection of the community requires transfer to the court of general jurisdiction;

    (2) Whether the offense alleged involved viciousness, force and violence;

    (3) Whether the offense alleged was against persons or property with greater weight being given to the offense against persons, especially if personal injury resulted;

    (4) Whether the offense alleged is a part of a repetitive pattern of offenses which indicates that the child may be beyond rehabilitation under the juvenile code;

    (5) The record and history of the child, including experience with the juvenile justice system, other courts, supervision, commitments to juvenile institutions and other placements;

    (6) The sophistication and maturity of the child as determined by consideration of his home and environmental situation, emotional condition and pattern of living;

    (7) The age of the child;

    (8) The program and facilities available to the juvenile court in considering disposition;

    (9) Whether or not the child can benefit from the treatment or rehabilitative programs available to the juvenile court; and

    (10) Racial disparity in certification.

    For the full statute, see

  5. Mindy Carney says:

    Thanks, Erich – yes, I'd read those. And I still do not believe, even if every one of those criteria was "met," that a 12-yr.-old can be held responsible in the same way an adult can. If a child's brain is not fully developed, how can we say that s/he is beyond rehabilitation? There is enough new research on brain development out there to show that we have still just begun to scratch the surface on what humans are capable of recovering from, given the right intervention.

    What this really seems to say, then, is that we will certify and try a child as an adult if we decide that the system can't invest in helping him. Which I acknowledge may be a hard truth we have to face, but how tragic that our society turns out younger and younger "hardened" criminals, and instead of investing in family development and change, we simply sweep these kids away and out of our hair under the guise of adulthood.

    Does anyone believe that when he leaves prison in lo, so many years, he will be positive addition to the community? Will he get any sort of help or guidance or learn to love himself in prison, or will he just learn how to shut down or lash out?

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