March 1, 2001
Trying alleged Dartmouth killer as an adult would be a
James Alan Fox
We do not as yet have a clear understanding of the motive for the Zantop
homicides. If, however, the alleged perpetrators are anything like
the 30 percent of juvenile murderers in this country who kill with an
accomplice, teenage bonding may have had much to do with the motivation. In
the company of friends and with their encouragement, adolescents frequently
behave in horrible ways that are totally out of character. Any
concern for the victims is sacrificed to peer expectations. Acting
out of a sense of loyalty to friends/accomplices does not excuse the crimes, of
course, but it is surely an important mitigating element.
We must fully consider the special nature of youthful offending -- even murder. Teenagers may look like adults, dress like adults, act like adults, even kill like adults, but they reason like children.
There is even some recent neurological evidence out of McLean Hospital showing that the portion of the brain (the frontal lobe) which controls the capacity to evaluate consequences does not develop fully until late adolescence or early adulthood. For many kids, it's a case of "I didn't think things would turn out this way!"
By virtue of their youth, adolescents often fail to appreciate fully how precious life really is. They act with reckless abandon, giving little thought to the consequences for themselves, much less for their victims.
This is not to say, of course, that kids have no ability to consider consequences, only less than adults and, therefore, should be held to a lesser standard of criminal responsibility. Moreover, the research evidence is unequivocal that trying juveniles as adults neither serves to reduce recidivism nor deters others. Adult penalties don't make kids think twice, when many of them don't even think once.
The waiver decision for Parker puts the court between the proverbial rock and hard place. Penalties under the juvenile code would be too lenient, while those under the adult criminal code would be too harsh. A compromise approach is needed for young killers -- one that recognizes the lesser culpability of teens but provides sufficient punishment to satisfy our need for justice.
Making the juvenile justice system more just and punitive is one thing, but diminishing its role it is quite another. At least for the sake of future James Parkers, New Hampshire lawmakers should follow the example of other states by lengthening juvenile penalties, rather than trading up for the adult version.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. He as published several books on homicide, including "The Will to Kill, Making Sense of Senseless Murder"(Allyn & Bacon, 2001).