SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - An 8-year-old girl is murdered, her body found in a trash bin. This laid-back oceanfront community goes into shock as prosecutors muscle up.
“We are going to bring him to justice,” declares the DA, Jeffrey Rosell, with bravado usually reserved for an extensive manhunt seeking a hardened criminal. In fact, the alleged killer is already in custody. He’s a 15-year-old kid from the troubled home next door.
Thus unfolds another sad case of confused, conflicted and counterintuitive juvenile justice in America.
The boy will be tried as an adult, the DA announces, meaning that he immediately loses the necessary protections afforded kid criminals and kid suspects. The vengeful system that acknowledges the scientific differences between children and adults when it matters least, abandons them when it matters most.
And again, media are complicit. One day they withhold the boy’s name because of his age, and the next they not only publish his name but also photos and videos from his Instagram account. A judge allows video cameras in the courtroom and so the kid, in handcuffs, surrounded by armed guards, is put on display.
Let’s step back for a moment. The murder, accompanied by a sexual assault, was horrifyingly brutal. The suspect should be neither coddled nor quickly forgiven; indeed, if guilty he should be separated from society and punished. The victim’s family deserves the community’s deepest sympathy and understanding.
But trying a child as an adult doesn’t make him any older or any less vulnerable. What prosecutors are seeking is a longer sentence, perhaps life in this case, because the juvenile system limits the time a child can spend behind bars. Here in California, such action used to require a hearing before a judge, along with testimony by psychiatrists, before the case could be transferred to adult court. That changed when voters approved a measure to exempt some violent crimes from what had been a careful and protective process.
Voters and lawmakers are sometimes motivated by fear. During the worst periods of seemingly uncontrollable drug-related and gang crime a decade ago, some things were hastily implemented. Among them, excessive mandatory sentences for certain adult crimes, and harsher treatment for violent children.
The unfortunate process begins with distorted semantics. When the DA says a boy will be “tried as an adult” it’s not fully accurate. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that kids can’t be given the death penalty, nor can they receive life sentences without ongoing judicial review. Why? Because they’re children, not adults.
States differ in how they handle juvenile justice. New York, for example, still treats 16-year-olds as adults and houses them with adult inmates. Pennsylvania has the nation’s highest number of kids serving life sentences, over 450, and has been slow to re-evaluate following the Supreme Court decision.
As for the media’s role, my son Danny, a writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, looked into that side of the Santa Cruz story. He concludes that for journalists, who went from withholding the boy’s name to distributing it widely, “merely following the government’s lead is not a convincing rationale.” Editors, like judges, need to exercise discretion - if not by withholding a name, at least by limiting the photographic and sensational aspects of coverage.
In a sad but pointed observation, one veteran local news director told CJR, “Audiences aren’t going to defer to the station that has the higher perceived ethical standards.”
Courts, lawmakers and, yes, voters, need to re-evaluate how children are handled in our legal system - a system already under attack for widespread abuses. Media, too, should rethink their rush to place children in the spotlight - especially before a trial.
The Santa Cruz suspect is described by the Sentinel newspaper as “shy” and having been “raised in a troubled and sometimes violent home.” His name and photo are in the paper, but you won’t see them here. It would serve no purpose, other than to underscore the desperate need for reforms in our laws and our media.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker