Should 12-Year-Old Be Punished As An Adult?

by TChris

The "get tough on crime" mentality of the last 25 years induced state legislatures to turn back the clock on hard-fought reforms in our juvenile justice system. Juvenile courts weren't tough enough, critics said, so legislatures began to indulge in the absurd fiction that children who commit "adult crimes" (whatever those might be) aren't really children at all, and should therefore be subjected to the harsh realities that attend adult convictions. Legislators who acknowledge that kids lack the maturity to drink, smoke, vote, or fornicate were persuaded that kids are nonetheless capable of making mature decisions about crime and should be judged as if they possessed an adult capacity to make grown-up judgments about criminal behavior.

So it is in Ephrata, Washington, where Jake Lee Eakin (age 12, IQ 83) was ordered to stand trial for homicide in adult court. But Jake doesn't possess that imaginary level of adult sophistication; in adult court, he doesn't have a clue.

"When the judge starts talking, I don't know what he's saying mostly," said Eakin last week at the Grant County juvenile-detention center, his 70-pound frame floating in a prison-issue jumpsuit.

Eakin's lawyers are trying to persuade a state appellate court that sending a child of that age into adult court "threatens the very foundational purposes" of Washington's separate adult and juvenile-justice systems. There isn't much doubt of that. Nor is there any doubt that it's time for state legislatures to rethink the absurdity of treating kids like kids for all purposes except the criminal justice system.

If Eakin has a hard time understanding, it's in part due to his age and the typical brain development of a child his age — factors that would influence his decision-making and judgment, said Steven Drizin, a juvenile-justice expert at Northwestern University's law school.

"Most of the research suggests there are serious questions about competency of 14-year-olds," he said. "Certainly 13 and younger function like mentally retarded adults in their level of functioning." As for 12-year-olds, Drizin said, they are "simply not as culpable as adults for their criminal behavior."

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