THE BLOG

What the Slender Man Case Reveals About the Juvenile Criminal Justice System

06/19/2014 06:14 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2014
  • Tina Freiburger Associate professor and chair of the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Because I research juvenile justice issues in Milwaukee, 20 miles from where the bizarre Slender Man crime occurred, I've been fielding questions lately from friends and family from around the nation. Most are about the criminal justice system.

The basics of the case are, by now, familiar to many readers. Claiming they were trying to please an Internet character named Slender Man, whom they believed was real, two 12-year-old girls allegedly attempted to murder their classmate this June in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The victim, who was stabbed 19 times, was discovered by a passing cyclist and survived. Not surprisingly, this case has drawn international media attention, and likely will continue to do so in coming months.

Below are the most common questions I have been asked and my responses.

Why are 12-year-old girls being tried as adults?

Wisconsin is one of the toughest states on juvenile homicide. Since 1995, Wisconsin law has required prosecutors to file adult charges in homicide or attempted homicide cases whenever the perpetrator is 10 years old or older; the prior age was 12. The intention is to offer protection to the community by incapacitating all these juvenile offenders. Consistent with the law, the girls are entering the adult criminal justice system, although their attorneys can ask that the case be moved to juvenile court.

These mandatory adult sentences are highly controversial for many reasons. Not all juvenile offenders will commit crimes years later, as adults. Efforts to predict which juveniles will and will not continue to offend, regardless of treatment and rehabilitation efforts, have been largely unsuccessful.

Is it better or worse for them to be tried as adults?

It could be worse for the juvenile. Most research has found that juveniles who are treated as adults have higher rates of recidivism than those treated as juveniles. These findings may be due to the decreased amount of treatment services juveniles receive in the adult system versus the juvenile system.

Wisconsin law states that a person convicted as a juvenile must be released from the system at age 25. If the girls are convicted as adults, however, the girls could face 60 years of incarceration. They would start their sentence in a juvenile facility then be moved to an adult prison at age 18. Some research suggests that juveniles who come into adult prisons are more likely to be targeted for abuse by the prison population.

Finally, juveniles do not always make good decisions regarding their best interest in the adult system. As illustrated in the Slender Man case, the girls waived their Miranda rights and responded to questions without a lawyer present.

Are girls more violent than they use to be? Is it an epidemic?

While our society is not accustomed to girls being violent, an increasing number of girls have been arrested for violent crimes in recent years. Still, it is far from being an epidemic. Boys still outnumber girls in juvenile arrests; for every four boys arrested, one girl is arrested.

Today, girls account for nine percent of juveniles arrested for murder in the United States. In fact, girls most commonly enter into the criminal justice system for "status offenses," which are considered the least severe offenses. Status offenses are acts that are illegal for juveniles but not for adults. They include truancy, running away, and curfew violations.

Could following Slender Man lead someone to consider murder?

Slender Man -- whose descriptions include someone who abducts children and who is only visible the moment before death -- is probably no more dangerous nor holds any greater influence over juveniles' behaviors than other violent mystical creatures from past and present. The girls' alleged act probably will not be pinpointed on a single factor, such as Slender Man. Much more likely, we will learn that a combination of the factors commonly linked to violent juvenile acts -- including behavior problems, mental and personality disorders, school and family problems, and even the dynamics of the girls' relationships -- were more important contributors.

What else should parents know?

First, parents should remember that this case is extremely unusual and not overreact.

Many experts have called for parents to pay more attention to their children's use of technology. I agree with this but I would add that parents should also remember that children are often fascinated with non-dangerous fictional characters.

If parents find that their children are consuming violent fiction, they should have conversations with their children about what is real and what is pretend. Depending on a child's age, that line can be blurry. If you doubt that your child is making age-appropriate distinctions, seek advice from a health care professional.

It's also vital that parents pay attention to additional warning signs that a young person may be in serious, emotional distress. These signs include depression, increased fascination with violence, and an escalation of fantasy to planning in real-life situations.