The teenager who killed my sister’s family was born of privilege in the Chicago suburbs.
He planned the crime for weeks and executed it alone. He had committed crimes before, but never faced serious consequences. His parents always bailed him out, never wanting him to get in real trouble. If only he had gotten in trouble the first time when he shot out people’s car windows with his BB rifle, or when he was accused of setting that girl’s sweater on fire in school, or any of his other serious early crimes. But he never faced legal consequences, so he kept going because, he told his friends, it gave him a “rush.”
Most young people who commit crimes appropriately stay in the juvenile justice system which is focused on rehabilitation. But there are rare cases when older teens demonstrate heinousness and culpability and carry out truly horrific crimes. For those few a couple years of detention and programs are not enough. These individuals can be appropriately tried as adults. They need to grow older before release. They need long term evaluation to see if they will ever be able to rejoin society. And we should not rule out a sentence of life without parole in extreme cases. We must balance the victims’ families’ right to some legal finality with the likelihood that the offender will ever qualify for release. It’s a sad fact that some sociopaths start young and remain dangerous all their lives.
As a volunteer for more than a decade sharing my sister’s story with youthful offenders, I am always emotional when I talk to them about how their getting in trouble is a good thing. It means they get a chance to learn from their mistakes. Consequences are good. They help young people change and grow. They have been given a chance that I’d give anything for my sister’s killer to have had before his crimes escalated. It always inspires me how many young people actually get this.
Cases vary widely and so all must be judged individually. Sentencing has to focus not only on the offender but also on public safety and prevention of further victimization. Our society is appropriately concerned, as this forum demonstrates, with helping juveniles. Let’s also remember that the victims of violent juvenile crime need just as much of our support.
NICRO is committed to turning lives around - We encourage all South Africans not to stand back, but become involved either by donating a monthly amount, a once-off donation or look at the NICRO wish list for support in kind for around the country and see how you can assist.