Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kids in jail, programs that fail, and other miscellany for a Friday in Fall.

As I first mentioned in a comment a while back, the U.S. Supreme Court is now taking up the matter of whether it's cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life in prison for offenses other than murder. If that sounds like something that would be unworthy of the Court's time because it seldom happens anyway, consider that according to the New York Times article linked above, there are now 77 kids so situated in Florida alone. The Times also says we're the only nation on earth that imposes such a sentence on juveniles. Of course, we're also the only free-world nation that kills people in the name of justice (which explains why a number of our European allies refuse to extradite here in cases where the death penalty may apply).

Getting back to the matter at hand... Personally I wouldn't even frame the question in such narrow terms. I want to know why it's not cruel and unusual to hand down a sentence of LWOP* even in cases of murder. One of two case histories at the heart of the Court's current deliberations concerns Joe Sullivan, who received LWOP after being convicted of raping a 72-year-old woman when he was all of 13. I realize that there's much diversity of feeling on the matter; some of that sentiment is very heated in favor of the sternest possible punishmentand I wish I understood why. To me, all arguments rooted in "an eye for an eye," "do the crime, do the time" and similar sloganeering are ultimately beside the point. A 13-year-old is a 13-year-old. We don't allow 13-year-olds to vote, drink, sign binding contracts, join the military, drive cars or (in most municipalities) own firearms. The reason we give in denying them such privileges is simple: They're not responsible enough. They're not responsible for their actions.

If that's the case, how do we suddenly turn around and declare them "adults" for the purpose of locking them up and throwing away the key?

By the way, if this topic interests you, there's more detail/analysis available in this series of posts from early 2008.

Read Babies and bath water, Part 1.
Babies and bath water, Part 2.
Babies and bath water. Some final thoughts.


Speaking of kids...have you seen
this one? I seriously think he's from another planet. (Which may explain why he won't say the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. Flag.) But regardless of your feelings on the issue here, the kid is too much.


My long-ago items on the Midwest Center for Stress & Anxiety continue to rack up comments:
Cumulatively the two main posts, from April 2007 and July 2008, are zeroing in on the 200-comment threshold. Certainly the suicide** of Lucinda Bassett's husband, and the seeming cover-up that ensued, was food for thought for many Center clients, and accelerated debate on this highly specialized corner of the SHAMsphere. Complaints about the Center and its practices are not hard to find on Ripoff Report and elsewhere. Maybe a re-visit is warranted?

* Justice system nomenclature for "life in prison without parole."
** See short item, "Body in Field Ruled a Suicide," on page 2 of linked pdf.


Steve Salerno said...

(DimSkip: Thanks for keeping me on my toes.)

Elizabeth said...

the kid is too much

LOL. Steve, what do you have against the kid?

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Against him? Nothing. But come on, he talks like he's a 41-year-old professor of antiquities at Princeton...

Elizabeth said...

He does, doesn't he (sound like a professor, lol). I think he is pretty cool. Kudos to him for thinking things through and having the guts to stand up for what he believes. Not many adults are capable of that. He is going to go far in life.

BTW, I work with these kids. It's a lot of fun (and a jaw-dropping experience, in a positive sense, every so often).

Yekaterina said...

I'd say its the teacher who is too much...

Yekaterina said...

How is it cruel and/or unusual punishment to lock up a person who feels it's okay to rape a 72 year old woman? A 13 year old knows this is wrong. Most 13 year olds would be repulsed at the idea of committing such a crime. A 13 year old who is not repulsed by the idea of actually carrying out the rape (and/or murder) of another person, a 13 year old capable of inflicting that type of pain and terror upon an innocent human being, why do you want to let him roam free in society? Most 13 year olds aren't capable of driving safely, of grasping the issues where voting is concerned, of understanding the consequences of joining the military or of signing a binding contract. They don't have enough life experience to be able to do these things responsibly and such rules forbidding a child to do these things serve both the child and society, but as you say, a 13 year old is a thirteen year old, if he/she hasn't grasped that raping and/or murdering another human being is a horrible act to commit and not acceptable, that child shouldn't be allowed to walk the streets.

I do understand your qualms about the death penalty, even if I don't share them, but how is being locked away for the rest of your life cruel and unusual punishment? There is a life to be had in prison Steve.

Steve Salerno said...

Ykat: I want to be sure I understand you here, so let me throw the question back at you. You're saying that you think it's OK to take a 13-year-old and put him away for life based on that one offense? No chance of rehabilitation? No chance of ever rejoining society? One strike and you're out?

Plus, can we at least agree that a 13-year-old who does such a thing (rape a 72-year-old woman) has some "issues"? So we're not even going to treat him as a sick person, at least till we know better, and maybe try to fix him? Just exile him somewhere and write him off?

Jenny said...

Steve, did you ever consider just sticking to lighter topics? Geez. ;)

Okay. About the kid who refused to say the pledge of allegiance. Why does that strike you as alien? Just curious.

My daughter did the same thing in the Leo Club when she was about that age. Her objection was similar, although not specifically toward gays and lesbians but a general protest against U.S. foreign policy. The adult leaders of the club asked if she would at least stand up with the other kids while they said the pledge, so she wouldn't distract the others. She reluctantly agreed.

Martha said...

I saw the kid on tv the other day and he sure sounded coached to me. Here's an example of one parent who made it through the media's oh-so-calibrated BS filters. At least the kid didn't say, "Who the hell is Wolf?"

Re kids in jail -- I don't think it's legitimate to align one set of prohibitions (alcohol, driving, voting and military duty) with another set of proscribed behaviors (say, uhm, raping a 72 year old woman) and putting them under the same umbrella of "they know not what they do."

I distinctly remember as a 13 year old knowing very much for certain that it wouldn't be nice to rape an elderly lady. Hell, I'm all grown up and everything and I STILL feel guilty at the memory from that era of letting my pet rabbit's food bowl go empty.

Steve Salerno said...

Martha: I think the kid's just an egghead. Hell, if he really said to the teacher what she says he said... How many kids think like that?

Speaking of which--

As for the whole issue of juvenile justice, so then I assume you must also think it's OK to execute 13-year-olds? And have you considered the possibility that you may have been an unusually precocious, conscience-ridden child?

Martha said...

Awww...where do you connect that it's okay to execute children. Now you're just trying to be provocative.

All's I'm saying is that 13 year olds have full awareness of right and wrong -- at least the broad strokes of the question. They're not wind-up toys.

There is something to be said for punishing the parents of such a child. He learned that kind of behavior somewhere.

Sex offenders seem to be a lifelong source of trouble and heart, no matter how young they are when they start. (There is also correlation between early signs of violence and true animal abuse -- not just making Harvey go hungry -- and serious adult crimes.)

I don't think holding yourself responsible for keeping your pets fed is precocious at 13. Least I could do!

Steve Salerno said...

Martha: No, I stand my ground here. You've used this tactic before--stating a premise and then trying to distance yourself from its logical end-points--and this time I'm calling you on it. :)

If you're saying that a 13-year-old is old enough to face the music and be punished for it in some formal manner (i.e. like going to prison for life), then you're also saying--inescapably--that a 13-year-old is old enough to face the ultimate penalty we inflict on adults. I'm sorry, but you can't suddenly run from that implication just because it sounds too jarring for your tastes or offends your moral sensibilities somehow.

Least, that's how I sees it.

Elizabeth said...

How many kids think like that?

You'd be surprised, Steve.

And have you considered the possibility that you may have been an unusually precocious, conscience-ridden child?

I'm not Martha, but -- no. At that age, the moral judgment in normally developing kids is pretty solid with respect of recognizing right and wrong, and certainly is their ability to empathize with others, human and not.

Doesn't mean that 13-year-olds (just like 30-year-olds or 60-year-olds) always follow the dictates of their conscience, of course. But, unless they are psychopathic, they know right from wrong.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: OK, so would you--as someone with specialized knowledge in the field--sentence a 13-year-old to life in prison (without parole) or capital punishment?

I'm stunned by some of what I'm hearing here, but then, I'm stunned by a lot of things. Personally I think we should always allow for at least the possibility that someone might be worth salvaging at some point down the road. No matter what he or she does. Whether at 13 or 33.

Elizabeth said...

No, Steve, I didn't say that.

Executing kids or putting them in prison for life is pretty draconian, to say the least.

I am not against capital punishment for adults, however. There are certain crimes that merit the ultimate punishment.

Elizabeth said...

Apropos -- this case is now in the news:

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — On an Internet site, 15-year-old Alyssa Bustamante listed her hobbies as "killing people" and "cutting." It may have sounded like a teenage exaggeration, but authorities say she fulfilled her words.

Even as new details emerge about the teenager charged with killing 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten, many facts about the crime continued to be kept secret Thursday – and may never be released by authorities unless Bustamante goes to trial for murder.

Bustamante, who had been in juvenile custody since leading police to Elizabeth's body Oct. 23, was certified Wednesday as an adult and indicted on charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action. She is accused of strangling Elizabeth, cutting her throat and stabbing her.

Online court records showed Thursday that a public defender assigned to represent Bustamante filed a motion seeking to have her placed in a state hospital for immediate mental health treatment.

On a YouTube profile viewed by The Associated Press, which has since been taken down, Bustamante listed her hobbies as "killing people" and "cutting." A year ago, Bustamante posted a video to the site in which she appears to intentionally shock herself on an electric fence near her home, then goads her two younger brothers into doing the same.


Martha said...

I'm with Elizabeth on this one.

And Steve, you're stunning yourself. You keep insisting on jumping to the extreme conclusion.

In an ideal world there would be a lovely "let's start over again shall we?" penal system for juveniles replete with everything they need to learn how to function in society -- a system that's well funded and staffed by smarter-than-God mental health counselors who can look into the future and recognize which junior sex offenders can actually be trusted to re-enter the world and grow up to be Nice Guy.

So far, the statistics for recividism (I've been trying to avoid that word because I can't spell it, but now it's the only word to use), especially among sex offenders (which I believe your 13 year old rapist is), is counterindicative to the prospect of a happy, healthy, productive adulthood in free society.

Long sentences (like the one above, not the discipinary kind) are also a bad sign of something.

Sarsabu said...

Thank God that here in Europe we have moved on from capital punishment. If Britain had had capital punishment in the 1970’s there would have been at least ten innocent people executed that I know of – The Birmingham Six and The Guilford Four. The idea of someone rotting in prison, reminded everyday of the acts they have perpetrated, seems a much more appropriate sentence.
Those who partake in the mass shootings in schools, workplaces, etc., generally turn the guns on themselves when the spree is over. They then do not have to deal with the consequences of their actions, or go through the judicial process which, in countries like the USA and Iran, would lead to a death at the hands of the state.
As for trying a 13 year old as an adult – I just cannot comprehend it.

Jenny said...

Steve, I am curious what you might glean from this quote I am including below, in particular the last part, about hope -- since that is a topic you have explored in depth in the blog before.

One assumes the judge is talking about hope in the sense of getting out of prison during this lifetime, but I can think of other possible meanings, too.

Quoting from the NY Times article you referenced:

A retired Florida appeals court judge, John R. Blue, did not see it that way. "To lock them up forever seems a little barbaric to me,” Judge Blue said. “It just seems to me that if you are going to put someone who is 13 or 14 or 15 or 16 or 17 into prison, you ought to leave them some hope.”

Yekaterina said...

Yes Steve, I do think its okay to put the kid in prison for life based on the one count of violent rape.

And yes, we can agree that the kid has some serious issues to be able to do such a thing. (And I'm not against him getting some kind of mental help. I'm actually for it.) I'm just against letting him back out into society.

Yekaterina said...

P.S. Many people from this planet don't say the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag...I'd say, uh, the greater majority Steve. ;-)

RevRon's Rants said...

Eliz - Perhaps a minor point, but a significant one, IMO: You said, "But, unless they are psychopathic, they know right from wrong."

Psychopaths know right from wrong, but to them, it's merely a hypothetical, intellectual concept, rather than a core value. They know something is considered to be "wrong;" it just doesn't feel wrong to them.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, by the time a kid is 13, he (or she) has developed their moral framework for the most part. As they age further, they don't fundamentally change, they merely grow more sophisticated and self-aware. The core personality remains.

If a kid commits such a brutal act at that early age, it's highly doubtful that the core values that allowed such an act will undergo a polar reversal. In short, the kid will just continue to exhibit violent behavior. For that reason, I do think it's appropriate to lock a 13-year-old rapist / murderer for life. That doesn't mean that I support the death penalty as an alternative punishment (I don't support it at all). Institutionalized murder is still murder, without even the rationale of having been committed in the heat of passion or fear of losing one's life.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: I don't agree, because so many of these youth crimes are contextual--for example, a kid falls into a gang subculture and has to murder someone as part of an initiation rite. Or, in perhaps a more common scenario, he encounters a member of a rival gang on the street, things get out of hand, and he goes back and gets his Glock and blows the guy away in front of a movie theater somewhere.

History tells us that many of the juveniles who fall into this category are simply acting in accordance with what might be termed the "expedient" or "environmental" morality. They do what they feel they have to do to get by. To assume that they are broken people who can never learn the path to civil behavior is, in my opinion, a severely flawed analysis.

Do you remember your Lord of the Flies...?

Steve Salerno said...

Incidentally, hundreds of thousands of GIs, good young men and women, went into Iraq--as part of what many of us now conclude was an illegal war--and killed legions of Iraqis. Are they war criminals who should suffer the death penalty? Or were they simply doing what seemed right and just at the time?

Sarsabu said...

RevRon's Rants said...

I think the core element in both your rebuttals is "circumstance," Steve. I wouldn't suggest sending the kid caught up in gang warfare to prison for life, but the kid who rapes and/or wantonly kills an old woman? In a heartbeat.

As to the military... up to a point, a combat soldier is acting on orders or a sense of patriotism, and should certainly not be subject to prosecution for war crimes. In short order, the motivation shifts to survival and/or revenge for the deaths of fellow combatants, and here, we have a gray area. A BIG one. But when a soldier begins wantonly killing - even enjoying it - a clear line has been crossed, and prosecution may well be justified. Now, if we're talking about the people who plan and command actions that are clearly based in some cynical ulterior motive, prosecution is not only appropriate, it is essential if we are to maintain any semblance of honor. I've known combat operatives who were deserving of nothing but our compassion, and others who were deserving of the harshest punishment available under our system of justice, and I'm glad I'm not in the position to make the call as to which is which... or to be subjected to someone else's judgment.

RevRon's Rants said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

Just to add my two pence from London, I'm jewish and jews go through a rite of passage into adulthood - girls at age 12 and boys at age 13. They are then judged as adults and have to observe all the commandments like their parents and other adults and they will get whatever punishment for any transgression accordingly.

My issue is however that this boys rape cannot have been the first time this boy has been in trouble or known to police or social services. Noone is "Born Bad" - he was probably helped there by his issues and not supported by the rest of society - its the one thing I can't quite understand about America - where are the social workers etc?

We all failed him in this case and the countless other juvenile criminals. Our price is now we have to pay for their room and board for the rest of their lives - isn't it much cheaper to have provided the necessary support and care before it got to this?


Steve Salerno said...

Londoner: I'll tell you what concerns me about your comment: this notion of declaring someone an adult by fiat--simply as an article of religious faith. I understand the notion of judging people for their actions in a moral sense, but in a legal sense, would you really want your children judged with the full weight of the law for any and all transgressions? And do Jews, then, allow all boys and girls to marry at age 13? To drive (regardless of what the civil authorities say)? Etc?

In any case, how does "declaring" someone an adult make it so? I can declare my dog a cat when it turns 12, too. Does that make my dog a cat? I think conceptual notions must take a back seat to biophysical/scientific truths, as they are proved.

I must say I am also highly skeptical in general of religious programs that intrude so heavily into secular behavior, with few allowances (if any) made for differing perspectives on moral values and the like. Such austerity, after all, is the same logic that gave us the Sharia, with its lovely inherent features like honor killings, etc. The specifics may be different but the concept is the same. Isn't it?

RevRon's Rants said...

Londoner, I think it a stretch to claim that the blame for all juvenile criminal behavior lies with the parents, social workers, system, etc. Sociopaths are not all "works in process," developing their pathology only in response to negative environmental factors. Some are, I'll grant you, but I'd suggest that many (perhaps even most) come by their pathological mindset & behavior patterns organically, independent of any external stimuli or experiences.

The underlying pathology might be schizophrenia manifesting as a psychotic break, seemingly in response to some emotional trauma, but the predisposition for psychosis was there before the events. And if the behavior is a manifestation of a sociopathic personality disorder, one will generally find that there were signs indicating the child's propensity for antisocial behavior well before the occurrence of an event significant enough to involve the legal system.

Serial killers, for example, frequently have a history of cruelty to animals and humans that reaches well into preadolescence. It's only when they get caught killing the neighbor's cat that any kind of red flag pops up, and in too many cases, even that is rationalized away or outright ignored.

While behavior modification can minimize some of the behaviors, in the case of a sociopath, such a regimen serves only as a superficial suppressant. The underlying desire remains, frequently awaiting an experiential trigger to "justify" its re-emergence. And in the case of a psychosis, the only real long-term preventative is a strict adherence to a pharmacological regimen (from which psychotics are known to deviate when given the opportunity).

What do we do? Tough call, but the first and most critical thing would be for parents, teachers, and other adults to observe kids' behaviors closely, and to avoid the tendency to excuse deviant behaviors as being "just a phase."

Anonymous said...


How do we assign an age - I mean who chose 16 as safe for driving and on what basis? I suppose in the old days Jews did marry at 13 - but that was to stop them having sex outside marriage as it coincides with puberty? In a secular way - on what basis would you define adulthood?

I'm ot that reliogious but for religious people there is no seperation between religious and secular life - its all under the auspices of G-ds recommendations I guess and I suppose that's why Sharia is so scary.

Revron, what you're actually saying is that there are those among us who are born bad - and thats exactly what I don't belive in. I'm sure that if you look at the biographies of well known psychopaths there is always a reason for their behaviour. If someone is schyzophrenic and they murder - then they are not evil - they are ill and therefore you can't really place any responsability on them - but of course you place them in a safe place where they can't hurt anyone else or themselves. Schizophrenics sometimes stop taking their medication when they feel better as some of the side effects are truely horrible - not out of some deviant mindset.

You and I agree that this boy would have been in trouble before and didn't get the help he needed - all we disagree about is that you think he was born bad and I think he was more then helped on his journey to the dark side by his environment.


RevRon's Rants said...

Londoner - If my description left you with the impression that an individual can be born inherently evil, I haven't made myself clear. The "evil" is in the actions, not the core of the person.

The statement that all well-known sociopaths came by their sociopathy in response to some external traumatic event simply isn't supported by fact. While there are cases where external triggers precede antisocial and/or violent behavior, in the vast majority of cases, there was evidence of the tendency toward such behavior early on, prior to anything attributable to some trigger. Furthermore, there are innumerable cases of individuals who experience the most horrific of trigger events, yet go on to lead happy, productive lives, with absolutely no inclination toward engaging in antisocial or violent behavior. Clearly, there has to be something well beyond the realm of external stimuli which presents as a near-universal precursor to such behavior. Calling it a "bad seed" is (IMO) excessively judgmental, and lays the groundwork for retribution, rather than addressing the real problem.

My assertion is that society needs to collectively be more observant and objective, and use some common sense in evaluating juvenile behaviors. It is possible to successfully apply behavioral modification techniques to the fledgling sociopath, thereby providing him/her with alternatives to the kind of behavior that comes "naturally," yet causes problems. It is also possible to establish a reasonably "normal" routine for all but the sickest psychotics by ingraining the necessity of maintaining a regimen of meds. In both cases, however, we have to first acknowledge the individual's behaviors as being indicators of a pathological state. At present, we overlook or rationalize the behaviors, thus setting the stage for the kinds of behaviors we abhor, and for the need to overload the criminal justice system with individuals who should rightly have been dealt with via medical intervention.

Steve Salerno said...

I'm not sure how I feel on the issue of "inherency" or that whole nature/nurture thing. I do think there are bad seeds--people who are broken from the start--just as, my veterinary friends tell me, there are bad dogs: Something is just wrong at the core. However, in such a case, I don't see how the person can be blamed for being born broken, any more than a puppy can be blamed for being born vicious. "It is what it is."

That said, I do think it is possible to make people see the error of their ways, in time. I think truly few of us are hopeless and incorrigible. And remember, there are many stories of people who have always led exemplary lives who suddenly, at age 40 or 50, do something unexpected and terrible. So I think a turnabout in the other direction is also possible, albeit perhaps much harder to achieve.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, there are certainly cases where an individual responds to some trigger event with behavior that qualifies as antisocial, but such an acute situation doesn't make the individual a sociopath, and the potential for "cure" in such individuals is high. I can personally attest to the truth of that.

For the textbook sociopath, however, there is no "cure" beyond convincing the individual that engaging in instinctively-driven behaviors is not in his/her best interests. From a social perspective, the individual is cured, yet the pathology remains. Releasing such an individual from responsibility for antisocial behaviors by adopting the attitude that "it's not their fault, because they're sick" serves as implicit permission to resume those behaviors.

In the case of the true psychotic, we can tell ourselves that the individual's actions are a manifestation of their sickness, but must simultaneously impress upon the individual that the decision to abandon their meds is a conscious choice, and the precursor to behaviors which society cannot tolerate. Even the sickest individual must be made to accept responsibility for conscious choices, as well as the behavior that results from those choices. The sick puppy doesn't acknowledge its sickness, where in the vast majority of cases, the successfully medicated psychotic can be taught to understand and acknowledge his/her sickness and to take responsibility for controlling it.

Anonymous said...

Revron, we're saying the same things but from different points of view. I didn't say that psychopaths are made from one traumatic event - rather they are formed by ongoing childhood events - and that starts in the womb so by the time a child is 5 a whole lot of damage can be done especially since this is the years of the most brain growth. There is also a large genetic component too but its the interaction between the two thats the most important and most difficult to unravel.

But Steve, you have a good point in that if it is all genetic or environmental or even a bad mixture of the two - how can you hold the person responsible?


RevRon's Rants said...

"f it is all genetic or environmental or even a bad mixture of the two - how can you hold the person responsible?"

Given the way that these pathologies too often manifest, how can we *not* hold the person responsible, at least to the point of exercising control over their antisocial behaviors? A rabid dog is not evil, yet can cause extensive harm. We feel justified in eliminating the threat presented by the beast; are we not equally justified in removing the threat posed by the individual whose genetic/organic condition manifests as violence? Removal of that threat might consist of incarceration for as long as the threat exists. In the most egregious of cases, some would opt for executing the individual (a "solution" with which I strongly disagree).