As Another Young Boy Commits Suicide in an Adult Prison, We Must Rethink the Prosecution of Children as Adults

09/23/2014 12:48 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

Zachary Proper, age 15, committed suicide two weeks ago in an adult prison in Pennsylvania. There has been little media coverage of his death, suggesting a disturbing complacency about suicide by youth who would rather take their own lives than endure decades in jail.

How did Zachary end up serving time as an "adult"? At the age of 13, he was charged with killing his grandparents. Under Pennsylvania law, because Zachary was charged with murder, state law required that he be charged as an adult. He ultimately plead guilty to third degree murder of his grandparents and was sentenced to 35-80 years in prison.

Although charged as an adult, Zachary also had the right in Pennsylvania to ask the criminal court to send his case to juvenile court. His lawyer did just that. The criminal court heard testimony from Zachary himself as well as law enforcement, family members and experts who evaluated Zachary. Zachary's parents supported their son throughout these court proceedings. While there was testimony about Zachary's abusive childhood and a prior suicide attempt, the court declined to transfer his case to juvenile court, and was particularly troubled by the absence of a "guarantee" that Zachary would be rehabilitated by age 21, when juvenile court jurisdiction would end. Of course, no expert could offer such a guarantee. But there are highly successful, proven programs that can help kids who commit serious crimes, even those who have committed murder. The chance of success for Zachary would have been especially promising since the juvenile justice system would have had nearly eight years of his adolescence to work with him - a critical period for change and transformation as Zachary matured into adulthood.

Zachary's story illustrates a long-standing dilemma in this country, one that claws at our nation's conscience. What do we do with kids who commit serious crimes?
Do we toss them aside or do we finally get them the help they need and deserve as children? Thirteen year-old Zachary, who confessed to killing his grandparents, was also a good student, a member of his school's football team, and enjoyed swimming, camping and canoeing with his family. But childhood abuse and depression were also part of his story. How can we reasonably hold children accountable for their actions, protect the public and give these children and families some hope for a positive ending?

In their recent book on contemporary justice policy for youth, Rethinking Juvenile Justice, Dr. Laurence Steinberg and Columbia Law Professor Elizabeth Scott recommend that no child younger than 15 be prosecuted and sentenced as an adult.
Dr. Steinberg and Professor Scott explain that youth younger than 15 are likely to be "significantly less culpable than their adult counterparts and substantially more vulnerable to the harsh context of adult prison." Yet throughout the country, children as young - or younger - than Zachary routinely face adult prosecution and adult prison sentences. Many of these children have a history of abuse or untreated mental illness. But does age or circumstance matter in the U.S. justice system?

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that children must be treated differently in our courts, recognizing the developmental immaturity, reduced impulse control, reduced ability to understand long-term consequences and thus reduced culpability of youth who are charged even with the most serious crimes. This is not to say they should not be held accountable, but rather, that they should be held accountable in age-appropriate ways. The transfer laws that placed 13-year-old Zachary at the door of the criminal justice system are vestiges of the 1990's, steeped in the discredited super-predator myth that was short on facts and ignorant of the research spearheaded by experts like Dr. Steinberg and Professor Scott. How can we possibly be surprised by this outcome when we've only compounded one tragedy with another?

This story begs the question, what is justice when it comes to children? There is no other instance where children magically become adults because of their behavior; indeed, we steadfastly (and rightly) resist any calls to lower the age at which children can take on "adult" responsibilities such as driving, buying alcohol, buying cigarettes, or serving on juries. We don't make individual exceptions to these legislative prohibitions simply because a child can momentarily behave like an adult. Why? Because we don't believe that these children have the capacity to consistently act responsibly or to make decisions that could permanently affect their lives.

Clearly, we must balance the rights of the child with public safety. That is paramount. But persisting in transferring children like Zachary to the adult criminal justice system simply invites another tragedy. Zachary's story is a reflection of what happens to children when we wrong-headedly treat them as adults. They have no hope.

At 13, Zachary Proper was not an adult. No legal fiction can undo that fact; the tragedy of Zachary Proper's life and death must shatter this inimical public policy once and for all. While we will likely never really know what drove Zachary to kill his grandparents, or what drove him to take his own life at 15, what we do know suggests a child reacting to abuse and distress in his own life in a way that only compounded his family's heartache and loss. While Zachary's actions were unquestionably the actions of a seriously troubled child, we, as the grown-ups in the room, must do better. Until we begin to truly treat children like children in this country, the tragedies will only continue.