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
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
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