WASHINGTON -- We are a very confused and troubled society when it comes to crime and punishment, especially when childhood or mental illness are involved.
We go to inexplicable lengths to protect a 13-year-old who commits cold-blooded murder, but we electrocute a 35-year-old who has the mental faculties of a 5-year-old. It is as though body size is a mitigating or aggravating factor in major crimes.
In some places, such as Arkansas, we put a teen-age killer in "juvenile detention," but decree that the state must let him walk free at age 21. That is probably like sending a youngster to a criminal's finishing school, then giving him a shingle under which he can practice his craft in adulthood. Perhaps we'll soon have a Megan's Law to warn us that the new 21-year-old on the block was a mass murderer at age 11.
We wrestle and wring our hands for months about who is innocent by reason of insanity, and we ask why boys 11 and 13 would mow down a teacher and four of their schoolmates. Yet we are told by the father of one of the shooters that no doctor or psychiatrist has examined his son since the boy's March 24 arrest. Do we really care, or want to know, what triggers such outbursts of child violence?
Some speak of the lunacy of the situation in Jonesboro, Ark., where these boys could bring two high-powered rifles (at least one with a telescopic sight) and seven handguns to the school where they methodically shot down their friends and neighbors. Yet a large swath of society screams about how guns are part of a rite of boyhood, a passage to manhood and a constitutional right.
These laws to protect juveniles are all the more bewildering because each state has its own rules, and even within states judges with varying sociological outlooks and interpretations of the law operate mostly in secret.
In Illinois, officials now grapple with the strange case of disputed facts and uncertain information where boys ages 7 and 8 are accused of murdering an 11-year-old girl, stuffing her panties in her mouth and foliage in her nostrils. The girl died of a fractured skull and asphyxiation.
A judge has declared the boys "delinquent" and ordered them held in a juvenile detention center for psychiatric evaluations.
In Illinois, because they are under age 10, the boys cannot be incarcerated even if proven guilty of murder. The state can simply keep them away from their families under "state-sponsored care" until they are 21.
No one is quite sure whether this law is to protect the children, punish their parents, protect society or what.
Most of the laws relating to child and juvenile crime were written in an era far different from that today where kids are exposed to incredible crimes on their streets and in TV programs and the movies; and where pre-teens and teens have access to mind-bending drugs and awesome weapons.
Some thought should be given to forging a national policy on child and juvenile punishment, although not many legislatures are likely to surrender "state's rights" willingly.
It can be argued that in cases involving children, Congress is probably no wiser than the legislatures of Arkansas or Illinois. But we are such a mobile society, and people change jobs, schools and more across state lines in such great numbers that there may be virtue in having national laws and rules.
One thing I'm sure of: What we have now is a jumble of absurdities.
8, Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 8/14/98