The book YardSticks by Chip Wood describes itself as "a resource for parents and teachers." Wood describes the behavior, cognitive skills and development of children in the classroom from ages 4 to 14. Here is what the author writes about 6-year-olds:
"Extreme behavior needs to be understood but not excessively tolerated; tantrums, teasing, bossing and tattling are ways sixes try out relationships with authority."
On Tuesday, extreme behavior came to Mount Morris Township, Mich. What happened there poses a challenge to the law, not only in Michigan, but also in Pennsylvania, where the legal system increasingly - and wrongly - is treating youthful offenders as adults.
At a Michigan elementary school, a 6-year-old boy allegedly brought a gun to school and shot a schoolmate to death. The boy and his victim apparently had some kind of dispute in the school playground the day before. The question facing authorities is what to do now.
Technically a 6-year-old could be prosecuted as an adult for murder in Pennsylvania. Murder cases can be tried only in the adult court system. And state law sets no lower age limit.
Charles Gallagher, chief of the homicide unit for the Philadelphia district attorney's office, would not speculate on what his office would do if confronted with a situation like this. He would only say that the office's procedure would depend on the facts of the case.
But let's be real here: No one would prosecute as an adult a 6-year-old charged with murder. Lawyers tell me that where a such a young child is involved, it wouldn't matter what the facts of the case were. Robert Schwartz, head of the Philadelphia Juvenile Law Center, said, "In every jurisdiction in our legal tradition for the last 500 years, the system under which we operate believes that children of 6 cannot be tried as criminals because they do not have the ability to plan or premeditate a murder. Children at age 6 do not understand the finality of death. They are still wondering whether the Easter bunny is real."
The youngest child charged with murder in this state was 9. But in that 1990 case, the state Supreme Court overruled a Common Pleas Court judge who refused to allow the case to be moved to the juvenile court.
In Philadelphia, Gallagher and the district attorney's office have been kept busy lately, what with the public attention drawn by two 12-year-old girls, Miriam White and Lekesha Graham, both charged with murder and who were, for a time, both at the Philadelphia adult detention center. Graham has recently been allowed to leave on bail; White, who had a status hearing yesterday is still being held at the center.
Treating children as adults - particularly children who have just reached adolescence - is unreasonable. In most cases, it cannot possibly function as any kind of deterrent. Yet even with juvenile crime declining, we are prosecuting more and more children in the adult system, according to a study by the Sentencing Project. That study cites a 1998 Amnesty International study estimating that as many as 200,000 youth under the age of 18 are prosecuted in adult criminal courts annually in the United States.
The adult system does not focus on rehabilitation and is incapable of handling juveniles effectively. Those sent to adult prison not only are likely to become recividists but also return to the outside world more hardened than ever. So unless these children are going to be put away for the rest of their lives, it can be argued that such punitive justice actually contributes to the commission of crime and accomplishes little aside from supporting the prison construction industry.
There has got to be a better way.
Acel Moore's column appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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