Barely a week after a 13-year-old shot a classmate and a teacher at Noblesville West Middle School, Indiana politicians were questioning a state law that requires the student to face justice as a juvenile, not an adult. Fortunately, any change in the law will have to wait until early next year when the legislature is back in session. Maybe a reasoned approach will prevail by then.
Not that all laws, including those dealing with juvenile justice, shouldn’t be reviewed from time to time. But making big changes in response to one horrifying incident is a good way to get it wrong.
According to news reports, the boy asked to leave class on May 25, returned with two guns and began shooting. Ella Whistler, also 13, was shot seven times and faces a long recovery. Teacher Jason Seaman, credited with tackling the student and preventing more carnage, was struck but not seriously injured.
The Hamilton County prosecutor issued a statement in which he said the youth would have been charged with eight felony counts, including two counts of attempted murder, if he were an adult. But because he was 13, he could be charged as an adult only if he was accused of murder – if a victim had died. As it is, the worst punishment he’s likely to face is to be in custody until age 21.
The prosecutor, D. Lee Buckingham II, implicitly criticized the law and said having to charge a 13-year-old as a juvenile “will, I am sure, be very troubling and unsatisfying for many people.”
House Speaker Brian Bosma jumped in, suggesting it was time “to take a thoughtful look at our criminal code and whether changes to the law are appropriate.” Gov. Eric Holcomb said he wanted “to talk to some prosecutors and those on the front lines to take a look at it,” the Indianapolis Star reported.
But we have separate justice systems for juveniles and adults for a reason. The question of what to do with juveniles accused of serious crimes is “exceedingly confusing and full of nuances,” said Roger Levesque, a professor of criminal justice at Indiana University. “And it likely will remain that way for a long time, because society does not yet have a grip on how youth should be treated,” he said.
On the one hand, Levesque said, the act of attempted murder may involve thought and foresight typical of adult actions: getting access to weapons, planning where and how to use them, etc. That creates an argument for treating the juvenile as an adult in the criminal justice system.
On the other hand, he said, juveniles typically lack the maturity, experience and judgment needed to make responsible decisions. Their brains are still developing. They may not connect their actions to consequences. We believe they can be rehabilitated and learn to act responsibly.
The U.S. Supreme Court recognized that thinking in 2005 when it ruled the death penalty should not be imposed on people for a crime committed when they were under 18. In 2012, the court ruled that mandatory life sentences were improper for juvenile offenders. Some state courts have extended the same rationale to accused criminals under age 21.
News organizations follow the same logic when they avoid publishing the names of juveniles in police stories. Indiana media, to their credit, haven’t named the accused Noblesville shooter.
The circumstances of the middle-school shooting may make some people frustrated, as the prosecutor said. But frustration isn’t a reason to scrap laws that have been adopted for good reasons.
An editorial in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette gets it right: If we want to prevent school shootings, we should worry less about punishing a shooter and more about figuring out how a 13-year-old was able to get his hands on two handguns and carry them into a science classroom.