The proper punishment for our youngsters

Posted: Sunday, June 04, 2000

The following editorial appeared in Thursday's edition of the Chicago Tribune:

Only months after 11-year-old Nathaniel Abraham became the youngest person in the nation ever tried and convicted of murder as an adult, another boy, scarcely older, faces similar jeopardy for a similar crime.

The 13-year-old Florida 7th grader who last week allegedly shot middle schoolteacher Barry Grunow to death could become one of the youngest persons ever in the United States to receive an automatic life sentence without possibility of parole.

Even before thoroughly investigating the circumstances of the shooting, State Attorney Barry Krischer already has declared he will try the boy as an adult and seek the maximum sentence for first degree murder.

Under Florida law, that means a conviction would give the judge no option but to sentence the boy to life in prison without parole.

At this point, only a handful of facts is publicly known about the seventh-grader. He was an honor-roll student. He practiced the flute. He had no history of trouble. He talked about becoming a policeman. He boasted a flawless attendance record. Classmates described him as a practical joker. So how to explain last Friday's haunting tragedy? Two hours after being sent home for throwing water balloons, the boy returned with a small handgun obtained from his grandfather's unlocked dresser. He allegedly shot Grunow after the teacher refused to allow him to enter a classroom.

Difficult as it may be to appreciate in such circumstances, it was precisely for cases such as this that the concept of juvenile justice was created and nurtured. It is too early to know whether this boy is beyond hope or rehabilitation - just as it is too early to understand why he did what he did.

Prosecutors should train as much attention on the grandfather who negligently left the handgun lying around. He could be charged with negligence, but that hardly goes far enough. He ought to be punished as if he committed the crime himself.

Other states that prosecute children as adults for serious crimes have built-in ``safety valves'' during sentencing that take into account the defendant's age. After Nathaniel Abraham's recent murder conviction in Michigan, for example, the judge had three sentencing options for the boy; he chose one that would keep the boy in secure juvenile facilities until he reaches 21.

Transferring the Florida boy to adult court gives almost sole discretion over his fate to prosecutors, rather than to judges or juries. And that increases the risk that the punishment will turn out to be cruel and unusual, rather than appropriate.

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