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Holding Teenagers Accountable in 2004

Written by fatherfrank  |  23. November 2004

A few weeks ago we were shocked and appalled by incidents of teen violence -a gang stabbing and shooting and then the reprehensible circumstance in which an eighteen year old hurled a turkey out of a car window into an on-coming car severely injuring the female driver. Police and community members have raised the question "why?" If we take a closer look at the six teenagers involved in the turkey tragedy, we see that most of them come from reasonably intact families and are relatively productive students in high school and college. So why this random act of violence?
During the next number of weeks and months, criminal justice professionals, mental health professionals and people in general will be looking for some explanation as to why a group of relatively reasonable friends decided to act so recklessly. The public information we have on this band of friends indicates that the young men have been in trouble before. They all have prior arrests for various pranks and inappropriate behavior. One question to be asked is since they have been previously arrested, were they held accountable or did they get rescued? Did our system of criminal justice enable them to be held responsible? As we hear these continuous stories of random violence committed by teenagers one has to ask the question where are their parents and should they be held accountable for the choices and decisions their children have made?
What possessed this group of misguided teenagers to steal a credit card? Was it their intention to have a big Thanksgiving bash or was it just to get over on a large food chain? The eighteen year old who hurled the turkey probably never intended to hurt anyone. However, he probably thought it would be funny to possibly scare and alarm someone. His history of being a prankster and the fact that he has never been held seriously accountable probably unconsciously made him feel that nothing would happen. We must not lose sight of the other young people involved. Although they did not hurl the turkey, the information we have clearly indicates that they were a part of the group that day. They made poor choices and they need to be held accountable as well.
The question to be raised is how do we hold seventeen and eighteen year olds accountable in the year 2004? Should they be incarcerated for an extended period of time? Should they do community service? Should they be given a serious fine that they, not their parents, must be responsible for? These are just a few questions that we probably need to think about. The danger here is that as the victim recovers and is restored to full health many will feel that the culprits were just kids engaged in immature or kid like behavior. That kind of thinking on the part of adults is dangerous.
As a band of misguided teenagers were stealing from a food store, planning a big party and engaging in a reckless prank, young men and women their age are risking their lives thousands of miles away in a hostile country. Some of these young men and women won't be home for Christmas. Some won't be home ever.
Unfortunately our criminal justice system in Suffolk County tends to be more punitive than rehabilitative. Over the last number of months there have been a series of articles regarding overcrowding in the jails, not enough personnel to supervise our jails and the concern for building a secure detention center for adolescents. If that is an accurate picture of our criminal justice system in Suffolk County, then I am not sure a group of teenagers involved in a reprehensible crime should be sentenced to jail. Is it going to help them, help the victim or help any of us in the larger community?
These teenagers are young enough to be redirected and saved from their own stupidity. There must be some creative alternatives that might better hold these young people accountable for their behavior in the final analysis. Hopefully it will help them change their thinking, their behavior and ultimately empower them to become more productive, contributing members of our society. What alternatives do we have? Unfortunately, we do not have many formal alternatives. Our criminal justice system should be challenged to think outside the box and act accordingly. It seems to me with our present system in place that a combination of jail, community service, re-education and restitution might make a difference in their lives.
For any kind of alternative sentencing to be productive and helpful, those charged with supervising the sentence must honestly be committed to the process and not let the bureaucracy discourage them. If one or any of the young people should choose not to comply with any aspects of this alternative, they should go to jail for whatever the initial sentence was that was imposed.
Some might think that any effort at rehabilitation or therapeutic intervention in this case is a waste of time and that these young people should be punitively treated. They should be given the appropriate jail sentence and pay restitution to the victim. The proposal for an alternative to jail, if properly implemented, is not a walk in the park. In many ways, these young people would be in a self-imposed prison without bars. To accommodate the mandatory counseling, the intense hours of community service and education and also to maintain employment to pay restitution, even on a good day, would be a challenge for most of us. The challenge in this case is to not allow the attorneys, the parents and other well-intentioned people to interfere with the process. It is not supposed to be easy or convenient. These young people are supposed to be inconvenienced and put out so that they might learn some important life lessons from this terrible tragedy.
This tragic circumstance is hopefully a wake up call for parents and teenagers alike. Objectively, the parents of these teenagers should not be totally absolved of any responsibility, especially those parents whose children have prior arrests. We must remember, they are still teenagers, they are not full adults. They need to be attentive to the fact that even though they may not have been the person who committed the serious crime, like the young man who threw the turkey, they were seen in that moment and implicated in the crime. According to our law, you are guilty for participating indirectly in that kind of circumstance.
The real tragedy of this horrific circumstance would be if the six young people involved did not learn a positive life lesson from their reckless, violent decision-making. If all their advocates are interested in is just getting them off, then "shame on them." We have failed these young people and ourselves terribly. The poor, innocent victim has been further victimized.
Incarcerating these misguided teenagers in our already over crowded county jail is not the answer. It may be the easiest resolution, if we want to continue to be "stuck in the box."
We have to think and act outside the box. This tragedy affords us the chance to do so and possibly chart a different course for these six teenagers.
For the sake of this innocent victim and the endless list of other innocent victims, I hope we have the courage to act differently, beyond merely being punitive!

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