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Children living behind bars: Trying children as adults poses significant threats to both justice and future of society

Last February, a 26-year-old woman was found shot dead in her bed in western Pennsylvania. She was eight months pregnant and her daughter, four, found her and alerted people working around the house.

The lead suspect in the case was apprehended the day of the shooting and has been charged with a double homicide. The county district attorney John Bonivengo has come close to settling upon homicide.

“At this point, we don’t believe it’s accidental,” he said, Bonivengo said in a CNN article.

What makes the case different from other murders is not just that the late term of Kenzie Marie Houk’s pregnancy made her death a double homicide, but that the accused perpetrator is the 12-year-old son of her fiancé.

The maximum sentence for youth is life in prison. But what is life in prison when you’re 12 years old? Under Pennsylvania law, anyone charged with murder or homicide over the age of 10 is considered an adult. Jordan Brown, the accused, was 11 at the time of Houk’s death.

Like most children faced with the prospect of sharing their lives with a new parent, Brown is described by an article CBS News as being jealous of the attention his soon-to-be stepmother and half-sibling were receiving and resentful of having to move out of his room to make it a nursery. This does not excuse murder.

For the time being, let us assume that Brown is guilty. He knowingly shot his father’s girlfriend as she slept and then went about his day. His motivation notwithstanding, he committed the crime for the purposes of this thought experiment.

When we were 12, many of us discovered fledgling feelings of a first crush or finally got rid of our treasured Pokémon collection in order to be more grown up. At the time of the murder, Brown was 11, navigating the awkward transition between elementary and middle school. There is no doubt that the boy is young.

So why put him behind bars? Because of the boy’s youth, Brown’s defense is attempting to drop the case to a lower juvenile court in case he is convicted. The juvenile system would offer Brown a chance at a normal life after serving his time. However, a doctor hired by the prosecution claims that Brown’s chance at rehabilitation in a juvenile prison would be scant and that he would be better locked away for the rest of his life.

Putting a young boy in a state prison with hardened criminals wouldn’t work for obvious reasons, and according to the prosecution, justice would not be served in a juvenile court.

Locking Brown away at this stage in his life would rip him away from a doting father who, while mourning the loss of his fiancée, still maintains his son’s innocence.

But a 12-year-old murderer in the confines of the juvenile courts might be too much to handle. Child psychologists might be in over their heads. Serious reconciliation is in order.

My solution, if he is in fact found guilty, is that he be placed in juvenile court and the 10-and-over-murder law be repealed. Even if Brown did know exactly what he was doing, he was still a child without the rational ability to think things through. After Brown turns 18 he should be turned over to the state prison system, for a period of five to 10 years, during which time he would be imprisoned and further attempted to be rehabilitated. If he, in fact, committed the crime, there is no softening the fact that he took the life of two people. Punishment should be doled out.

The nature of this punishment is what’s in question, because of Brown’s age, and should not be unduly softened. If he shows no signs of improvement, it appears that prison would be the place for him to stay. If he seems repentant, he could be given supervised job training and a supervised job.

If Brown is found guilty, the punishment should be akin to life in prison without actually having to spend life in prison. Brown would have something like an extended parole, and be monitored and given specific jobs to accomplish so that he could live on his own under surveillance. It would be a lonely life.

But somehow, this child needs to atone for his actions. A child in an adult prison leads to a dangerous child growing into a dangerous adult.

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