Hume: Underneath a facade of justice, our juvenile corrections system is failing

Jack Hume , Op-Ed Contributor

The prosecutors handling January 16th’s Kentucky school shooting case that left two students dead and more than a dozen injured announced last Thursday that they planned on filing a motion to move the suspect to criminal — colloquially “adult” — court. There, the 15-year-old suspect will lose many of the protections — including sentencing restrictions — afforded to him as a juvenile.

What happens next is a situation primed for great injustice.

In a 2014 report published by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection and the National Center for Juvenile Justice, conditions in many parts of the juvenile justice system are bleak. To begin, there’s no single national process that guides how juveniles are tried for crimes — that decision is left to the states, and many have yet to change the language found in legislation from the 1950s and 1960s, when distinctions between “juvenile justice” and “criminal justice” were first established.

That language has often been expanded, but rarely overhauled. In response to the boom in juvenile violent crime during the late 1980s and 1990s, many states adopted transfer laws that made it easier for juvenile offenders to be moved to criminal court. Behind this decision was the belief that some crimes are beyond the scope of juvenile courts, as some offenders stand little 9chance of rehabilitation.

Take, for example, Kansas — where children as young as 10 can be tried in adult court for any crime they commit. Even as violent crime committed by juveniles has decreased, states are hesitant to make changes to the late 20th-century’s transfer laws. This trepidation has resulted in as many as 137,000 juvenile transfers into criminal court.

The experiences of juveniles in correctional facilities of all types — including detention centers, camps, etc. — are often leaden with serious lapses. In a 2003 survey conducted by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection, a majority of juveniles placed in a facility report some sort of violence or theft against them, with the highest percentages among children aged 10. Likewise, in 2012, 1 in 10 childhood offenders reported “sexual victimization” within facilities, 80 percent of which was considered “staff misconduct.”

Additionally, many juvenile offenders enter correctional facilities with past traumas: according to the Office, 30 percent report some form of prior abuse, and 70 percent report “serious trauma” in their past. For many offenders, the justice system is a tunnel from the frying pan to the fire.

We value justice for a reason. Society could not function without it. But lasting, legitimate justice cannot be confused with the immediate gratification of the swift, superficial responses that immediately follow. The suspect in Kentucky will, with time, disappear from the public eye. If we remember anything at all, we’ll remember with satisfaction that justice appeared to have been done. The shooter will, after all, be prosecuted to the fullest extent.

That limited understanding highlights a serious disparity between the appearance and execution of justice in our country’s legal system. For many of us, whose degrees of separation from the high school in Kentucky or other sites of tragedy make our involvement akin to that of spectators, the theatrics of the heavy hand of justice can seem reassuring. What is often overlooked is what happens after the public moves on. Rather than consider the multitude of variables behind juvenile offenses, we often deal with disconcerting terms like “child murderer” by using phrases like “tried as an adult” to convince us justice will be done. We just won’t stick around for the hard part.

But for those affected, there’s no choice but to stay. I cannot imagine the weight of anger, despair and exhaustion that plagues the parents who suffered loss last week, nor can I envision the terrors the children in the school must have felt and will continue to feel in the future. Yet I also cannot imagine what drives a 15-year-old child to open fire on their peers or how our system’s answer to such a travesty can be so flawed. That myriad cannot be shrunken into words or flattened into a column. The situation — every part of it — deserves a lasting and fair response. I just don’t think this is it.

Jack Hume is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.