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30 Years for a 12-Year-Old?

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Christopher Pittman killed his grandparents with a shotgun. He was 12-years-old, stood 5-foot-2 and weighed 96 pounds. He had already been hospitalized for attempting suicide. Despite his age, size and psychiatric history, Christopher was tried as an adult and sentenced to 30 years in adult prison. Just last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed his conviction effectively ending his state-court bid for freedom or simply treatment as a juvenile.

Under South Carolina law, someone under the age of 14 is presumed to be incapable of forming the requisite intent to commit a crime. In this case the jury found that this presumption was rebutted despite the fact that the testimony established that Christopher had been taking Paxil when he went to live with his grandparents, but that when his grandmother took him to a physician to refill his prescription, he was offered free samples and a prescription for Zoloft instead. The medication came in a brown paper bag with instructions scrawled on the outside. The tablets were adult strength -- more than twice the appropriate dosage.

But whether or not it was the Zoloft, the question the Pittman case poses is: are we really willing to abandon a child at the age of 12, no matter what they've done?

In South Carolina, in order to transfer jurisdiction from the family court to a court of general jurisdiction, a court must find that such a transfer is in the best interests of both the child and the community. (There are at least eight factors that go into this determination.) In Christopher's case, in order to find that being prosecuted as an adult and incarcerated for 30 years was actually in his best interest, the state had to show, and the court had to find that he was, essentially beyond rehabilitation. They also had to find that the community would be safer with Christopher sentenced as an adult.

Both positions are wrong.

The truth is, treating kids harshly doesn't work as a deterrent. In an Idaho study of arrest rates after the passage of a harsh law mandating the transfer of certain crimes to adult court, Eric Jensen and Linda Metsger found no evidence of a deterrent effect. In fact when they compared juvenile crime in Idaho to demographically similar neighboring states, they found that the targeted crimes actually increased in Idaho while decreasing in Montana and Wyoming. Moreover, as a 1996 Florida study showed, treating kids as adults is likely to increase not decrease recidivism rates. The reality is, throwing kids into the adult penal system just doesn't make us safer.

And, of course, there is something about Christopher's sentence that should offend our moral dignity. We love and pamper kids with terrible childhood diseases even when their prognosis is terribly bleak. We create schools and homes for the mentally ill and mentally retarded, we take the protection of the weak and impaired among us as a social and moral imperative. The religious among us often believe that it is never too late to repent and change one's life. And yet when confronted by a child accused of murder, all of these instincts and inclinations seem to flee in the face of this unforgivable crime. When we look into the eyes of a child like Christopher all of our better impulses go out the window.

The criminal justice system failed Christopher Pittman as it has failed thousands of juvenile offenders across the country. Continuing to punish little kids as if they were adults may appeal to our sterner sensibilities or may even seem like good policy, but even the most cursory scrutiny reveals that children remain different and need to be dealt with differently. It's high time to repeal the raft of laws that send kids as young as Christopher into the adult system. We've already turned our backs on too many far too many kids. It's high time turn around and do what we can do to save them and in doing so, ourselves.