Thursday, December 1, 2011

Juvenile Offenders

The Yukio Mishima novel translated as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1) concerns a group of boys in Yokohama who carry out the murder of a merchant mariner because he has forsaken his life at sea - a life the boys see as elemental and beautiful - for the mother of one of the group. They also commit the crime knowing that, as minors, they will not be charged with murder by the Japanese justice system.

Mishima's use of the legal status of minors in the novel was certainly political, even if such a status is not unique to Japan. In law, the "age of majority" separates children from adults and is usually (and arbitrarily) the age of 18 (in Japan it's 20). But under criminal law, such a standard is not consistently observed or enforced. In the U.S., individual states can decide, depending on the severity of the crime committed, whether an offender can be tried as a "juvenile" under the Juvenile Justice System, or as an "adult".

How can one be considered a child at every moment of one's life until the age of 18 (or 17 or 16, depending on the U.S. state) except at the moment one commits a crime? The Juvenile Justice System in the U.S. exists simply because a juvenile boy or girl is not (I wouldn't insist cannot) be considered responsible for his or her actions. This explains the existence of legal concepts like "age of consent", which prevents, for example, addictive products like tobacco and alcohol from being sold to minors. Strangely enough, the age was increased twenty or so years ago from 18 to 21, which suggests that, at least when it comes to cigarettes and booze, it is taking longer to arrive at maturity.

When prosecutors are the ones who decide when a crime committed by a child or a juvenile is "heinous" (a word popular with prosecutors) enough to justify putting an offender on trial as an adult, who or what gives them the authority to apply such a blatantly arbitrary standard? There seems to be some foolish notion at work in the American justice system that contends that someone, no matter what their age or degree of mental competence, must pay for a crime, especially the most serious ones. But when a prosecutor decides to selectively disregard the legal status of minors by reclassifying them as adults when it suits his political purpose, he is compromising not just the juvenile justice system but the whole system of justice.

In England, a particularly unspeakable crime was committed in 1993 by two boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both aged 10. They abducted, tortured, and murdered a two-year-old boy named James Bulger. They were the youngest convicted murderers in English legal history. But, despite the severity of their crime, they were not tried as adults. They were sentenced to custody until they reached the age of 18, and then they were "returned to society". Their names were changed and they were relocated to other places in England to protect their identities.

A film, called Boy A was released in 2007 that was based on a novel by Jonathan Trigell, fictitiously telling a story similar to the Bulger case. The film perceptively and sensitively explores the life of one of the boys who is returned to society at the age of 18. My initial reaction to seeing the film, after my surprise that it was made at all, was that such an uninsistent, scrupulously neutral film could never have been made in the U.S. - for one thing, since Americans are not nearly as convinced of the rock-bottom decency of human beings, they would never assume that anyone who committed a crime such as the one committed by the two boys in the film, could be redeemable in a million years. Or that a minor should be protected by certain rights that make him immune to prosecution as an adult no matter what the crime was. Revenge is never very far from an American's understanding of justice. So when a heinous crime is committed, someone, no matter if they're children or mentally incompetent, has to pay.

(1) The Japanese title, Gogo no EikĊ, translates literally as The Afternoon Towing.

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