The ongoing trend of sensationalized stories featuring minors and heinous crimes continues to sadden me but the ripples resulting from the stories causes me even more pain. Most psychologists will say that it is impossible to accurately predict that a child will commit a terrible crime. No one could have foreseen the events surrounding the twelve year old girls who stabbed their playmate 19 times in order to prove themselves to a folk legend they read about on the internet. Nor can we say who will see a news story about a young man who shoots up a movie theater, Santa Barbara street or Seattle Pacific University Physics lab and translate the notoriety of the shooter as a way to be famous. Nor can we believe that other children who see two twelve year old girls tried as adults and facing 65 years in prison, will change their minds about committing a terrible crime.
Child psychology has traditionally held two beliefs that go back to Plato and Aristotle - Functionalism and Structuralism - Behaviorism and Constructivism; the child has a set of behaviors that emerge as they experience the world or they construct their understanding of the world as they experience and develop a set of behaviors. I am more in line with Aristotle and constructivism. Children observe the world around them and this helps them identify ways to deal with the world and, when they don't have models around them to emulate - they try responses and usually go with what works for the situation. That is, they construct a view of the world based on previous experience but not everything has an exact predecessor so they make do with what they have and use close approximations. For example, a four year old might want to make a phone call but he doesn't have anything that resembles the cell phone that mommy uses so he picks up a tin that holds his Spiderman trading cards and calls his daddy on his Spiderman cell phone. The child will create novel answers when previous answers are not available. That's where the adults and other influences around him help guide and facilitate his behavior. It is inevitable to put some responsibility in the lap of the adults around the children who commit awful crimes because they are much more influenced than adults by the things they see and don't see around them as they act on the world around them. It isn't completely in the lap of adults because children construct the world around them and aren't just robots who emulate the stimulus around them. What that understanding influences is that criminalizing children's behavior is irrational - even the really heinous ones.
I qualify this statement by saying that, we are shocked by the depravity of some of the crimes that children commit - I think mostly, because we see them as inseparable from similar crimes committed by adults and so we take the next step and conclude that the motivation for committing the crime is the same between adult and child offenders. But, in other contexts, like stealing for example, we tend to want to divert the juvenile offender while rebuking the adult offender, saying that the juvenile offender is "just a kid" but the adult has less consideration for the motivation and they should know better. The alarming trend is to charge young children with adult crimes - an even more alarming trend is the mundane nature of the crimes for which children are being charged. For example, earlier this year a 9 year old African American girl in Portland public schools was handcuffed by Portland police and led out in them after throwing a tantrum in the school. She was reportedly very physical but...I repeat...9 years old. What relationship do you think this young girl will have with law enforcement in a community already traditionally at odds with law enforcement? Recently, "bullying" has become a chargeable offense. In some cases, the perpetrator is charged with assault, an adult level crime. This type of criminalization of behavior is irrational but it is in response to the overzealous response of adults. Trust me, I am guarded when I say this because I am an active advocate for ending bullying of all types but the criminalization of the behavior is not the answer. Often, the children who bully need other options and need guidance and assistance - not a juvenile criminal record. While those tend to remain confidential - at the time they are initiated is when the charges are having their damaging effect. Erik Erikson theorized that there are critical periods in our lives when certain resolutions take place. For example, during the onset of puberty, the crisis is between identifying your role(s) or having role confusion. Imagine for the previous years you have been seen as the outsider or even just gotten into trouble at school and your role as "trouble maker" is affirmed by a criminal charge. One might become complacent in their identity or unsuccessfully resolve this role and not know if you are a good person or a criminal. Some choose criminal and over the course of just a few events - they are not only identified by others as criminal but soon adopt and behave like one. Studies consistently show that the expectations of others (especially those in positions of authority) profoundly influence the behaviors of influential children. One famous study featured teachers who were given either a class of high performers or a class described as high performers but in reality were a collection of students who were low performing. The teacher treated them as high performers and guess what? Their performance in the classroom improved dramatically. Ha Ha! Gotcha! The point is, criminalizing childhood behaviors and trying them as adults is an overreaction to behaviors that can serve as teachable moments. If you begin early on treating children as criminals, it is likely they will turn out that way. Treat them as positive, healthy albeit misbehaving, individuals who need to work on their decision making and though processes, and maybe we don't have the current trend. Note: the 12 year old girl who stabbed her playmate 19 times to impress a fictional folk tale character was reportedly diagnosed with a mental illness years earlier and this is my next point - let's use behaviors to identify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and then use that opportunity and the YEARS of learning and cognitive development left to help redirect the child offender and not turn them into lifetime criminals at the age of (in Oregon and Washington and 20 other states) 7.
Doing research for this article, I found that Oregon and Washington are among the 22 states that can try children as young as 7 in adult court. This means that a second grader is subject to the same sanctions and punishments as an adult. Ordinarily, they would not be sent to the same prison but would be transferred when they turned 18 (or 21 depending on the crime and condition of the individual). Recently, the Willamette Week periodical did a report on the trend to stop trying children as adults and instead, use diversion programs to re-educate them and teach them life skills to help them become a productive part of society. Critics point to young people who have been in and out of the juvenile court system and identify them as incorrigible. Such a pessimistic view. The problem(s) with any program can be found in the holes that emerge. It will be impossible for a youthful offender to reconstruct her life if she is saddled with adult level crimes and a record in the court system (even a confidential one). I have seen juvenile court judges give sentences that include participating in diversion programs and then expunging the record of the offender. This is the way it ought to be done. Universe forbid, I am the same person I was when I was 17 but with the weight of an adult charge on my record - I might have turned out even worse due to fewer opportunities and certainly no access to opportunities that lead to increased responsibility in an upwardly mobile industry. But one more thing about behaviors exhibited early on - they are becoming criminalized more and more often and then ignored. Law enforcement needs to remember that the mental health industry is available to help but again - there is a hole that needs fixing and that is funding for expanded programs. Right now in adult prison, approximately 70 percent of inmates have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. In other words, had they been identified and helped - many prisoners might not be in prison. Put another way, most prisons are actually mental hospitals meting out punishment to individual who have mental illnesses. Some mental illnesses have genetic components that are unavoidable. Imagine the outcry if we put a child with Down Syndrome in prison. Unfortunately for the schizophrenic, the signs of mental illness may not be so obvious but the genetic blueprint is there. Young children who suffer from mental illness may easily be incarcerated under the Measure 11 edicts, even after passing through the "second look" required by the Measure.
Recognizing the signs of mental illness and using the means provided by youth mental health services will contribute to redirecting children out of situations where they will be tried as adults and help them become productive members of society and getting the treatment they need. Children are still forming, some studies show that the prefrontal cortex is still developing into a person's twenties. Erikson provides for the condition where individuals are always reconciling the crises associated with growing up all throughout their lives so lessons can be learned, behaviors can be modified and mental illnesses can be treated. However, when we treat someone like a criminal, chances are they will become a criminal. Therefore, we should make every effort to avoid treating young children like criminals.