Jack of all Tirades: Crime doesn't pay, but for kids it can pass the time away

By Joshua London
web posted July 5, 1999

In the wake of the brutal Littleton, Colorado massacre public debate over juvenile violence was tumultuous. First there was shock: "How could this happen?" Then, of course, the politicians and pundits descended, vulture like, to feast: "Guns are to blame!", "It's the parents' fault!", "It's all that violence in popular entertainment!", "Society is at fault!", etc. Then, predictably, came the concomitant mindless symbolic gestures: "Ban all Guns!", "Make parents more legally responsible!", "Censure Hollywood movies and ban those damned video games!" Then, finally, came the "healing" and spiritual cleansing: this consisted mostly of jejune twaddle along the lines of "I've learned that hate is destructive." Such public discourse is so edifying for the republic.

But, as with all ritualized, empty, frivolous, banal mantras in our political culture, nothing worthwhile, lasting or substantive resulted. Nothing, that is, except a more sober attitude among some in the judiciary towards juvenile delinquency.

As evidence of this, Circuit Court Judge David Nicholson has ordered two 14-year-old boys, David Zinzo and Justin Schnepp, to stand trial as adults on charges of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. The two youths revealed to others a plan they were hatching to steal guns, take over their school's office, summon students to the gym over the public address system, and then, massacre their classmates. And, as unlikely as the prospect of their satisfactorily accomplishing this massacre might have been, Judge Nicholson means to teach them a lesson in responsibility. If the two boys are found guilty, they could face life in prison.

As one might expect, the public opposition to Judge Nicholson's decision is strong. Many seem to feel that the authorities are over-reacting and that it is monstrous to adjudicate these children as adults. As Zinzo's Lawyer, Kenneth Lord, maintains, idle-chatter does not constitute conspiracy. After all, children are just children. All children make mistakes!

But such notions, while certainly true enough, are entirely immaterial. 30 years of criminological research and empirical evidence indicates that most serious offenders against people and property in this country generally hit their peak between 16 and 18 years of age. And most experts agree that criminal behavior patterns crystallize by the age of eight, and sometimes much sooner. Children positively inclined to violent, criminal or anti-social behavior should not be treated lightly.

But, perhaps I am being too rash. Perhaps juvenile delinquents could be helped with therapy or drugs. Would it not be wrong to "give up" on these kids? What bosh!

Let us not forget that the murderous teens of Littleton, Harris and Klebold, had previously been required after being convicted of breaking into a car--to sit through "anger management" courses and had passed beautifully. Nor should we fail to recall that the Springfield, Oregon assassin, Kip Kinkel, was taking Prozac to control his violent tendencies: vandalism, torturing animals, building pipe-bombs, etc.

It stands to reason that simply throwing the book at every juvenile criminal strictly in an adult fashion might make matters worse. Putting a 14 year old in prison for, say, graffiti or car theft would probably go a long way in training that 14 year old to become a better and more violent criminal. Such a result would be quite unsatisfactory.

At the same time, however, it must be understood that there is a distinction between crimes of property and crimes of person. Conspiracy to commit murder is a far cry away from shoplifting or disturbing the peace.

I'm not advocating the incarceration of juveniles in every instance, by no means. But I do think that personal violence is a reasonable threshold for the adult adjudication of minors. Kids who break windows, steal car stereos or graffiti their neighborhood are, often, simply relieving the tedium. Children who rape, maim and murder, whether for fun, profit, or from emotional commitment, are dangerous enough to be prosecuted with the full force and weight of the justice system.

Now perhaps it is because I do not have children that I am at a loss to understand why "childhood" has been so idealized as to render juvenile crime so incomprehensible to so many. I have always assumed that the root of this problem is traceable to the widespread and romantic notion that people are born "Good." And that all kids are basically "Good" at heart. This notion is, of course, utter nonsense.

As Ambrose Bierce sagely noted, Childhood is "the period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth two removes from the sin of manhood and three from the remorse of age."

Babies are born innocent, not "Good" or "Evil." Moral "Goodness" or "Badness" is not a genetic endowment. In fact, babies are the quintessence of selfishness: I want food, I want attention, I want, I want, I want. There is nothing odd in this; without such behavior the species would become extinct. But children need, very quickly, to be educated and socialized with notions of right and wrong, good and evil and a sense of civility. And if we are to prevent children from becoming completely odious creatures, destructive of peace and property, uncouth, monstrously self-assertive, and generally unsuited to civilized company, then at least a modicum of discipline is in order.

Judge Nicholson is to be commended for his willingness to do justice. If the two boys are found guilty of what they have been charged with, then they ought to be held fully responsible. If the two boys are not guilty of the crime, then they will have learned a valuable lesson in proper conduct, civility and the duties of citizenship.

Jack of all Tirades is Joshua London's regular column for Enter Stage Right.

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