Just try to imagine the circumstances that lead a man to abandon his teenage son in a criminal courtroom and walk away, never to have contact with him again. Imagine the trauma already felt by a 15 year old boy, charged as an adult, told he’d have to walk around with a felony conviction and register as a sex offender for the rest of his life and then turn to see the only person there to support him – his father – leave during a recess and never come back.
That’s what happened to one young teen in New London, CT, back in February. The Day has this absolutely heartbreaking story of the problems of juvenile sex offenders, the harsh laws that we have and the absolute lack of any viable treatment options for these teens (The Day has chosen to name the 15 year because he’s being tried as an adult; I disagree with their tact, so I’m not going to name him).
The boy was 14 and living in CT when he was accused of sexually assaulting a 5-year old cousin. Because Connecticut law provides no discretion in the dealing of these types of cases, his was automatically transferred to adult court, without any individualized determination that he was deserving of being treated like an adult. And because CT law provides for no mechanism for the transfer back to juvenile court other than the charity and goodwill of a prosecutor, his case remained in adult court.
The prosecutor in adult court offered him a sentence that didn’t involve jail time, but that would give him a lifelong felony conviction, probation and lifetime sexual offender registration. For something he did at 14.
I suppose this can be seen as charitable, because under Connecticut law it is actually possible for a 14 year old to get a mandatory-minimum 10 year jail sentence, if convicted of sexual assault in the first degree.
“[The boy] wanted a trial,” [his father] said. “The way Pete Catania [the defense attorney] had explained it was, you’re going to get a B felony and sex offender registry. That would mean he couldn’t become a veterinarian and his life would be ruined.”
And for the rare case where a prosecutor might even consent to sending the child to a treatment facility instead of jail, there are no options:
Ferryman, the New London prosecutor, said sexual assault cases involving juveniles often are resolved with a suspended prison sentence and placement at an out-of-state facility for children with problem sexual behaviors, such as the Stetson School in Barre, Mass.
But [the boy] was living in Ohio, and in Connecticut, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz had restricted the number of children placed in out-of-state care. Until October 2012, there was no in-state option for children needing treatment for problem sexual behavior.
In October, with funding from DCF, the Boys & Girls Village, a Milford facility for children with behavioral problems, opened a 12-bed unit for boys with problem sexual behavior. All of the beds are full, a school official said. Most of the children are in their early to mid-teens and are able to attend an on-site day school. Older children [...] usually are sent to classes off campus, to clinical educational settings or to public schools.
A suspended prison sentence. 12 bed unit. Mid-teens. School. These are children we’re talking about and yet we condone a system that punishes them so severely at so young an age that every opportunity they have at reforming and rejoining society is forever extinguished.
What does this teach our kids? What does this say about us? Is there really no second act in American society? That we care more about what a person does and how best to punish them than understand why and help them?
Would you hire a sex offender? Would you care that he was 14 when he committed his crime? Who’s going to take care of these troubled children? What happens when they grow up, disenfranchised and bitter and angry and isolated and rejected? What happens when they realize that the only way to survive in a society that has failed them is to commit more crimes? Who will we blame then?
Because right now? When we treat 14 year olds as if they were fully-developed adults and expose them to the irrevocable horrors of the criminal justice system? When we abandon them in court and leave them to the mercy of a system unwilling and unable to appropriately care for them? Right now we have only ourselves to blame.