On Dec. 11 of last year, 18-year old Tessa Majors was fatally stabbed while on an early evening walk through a park near campus. Majors had recently moved to New York from Charlottesville, Virginia to start her first year at Barnard College. Days later, a 13-year-old boy was arrested on charges including felony murder. On Feb. 15, a 14-year-old boy was arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree murder, one account of first-degree robbery and three counts of second degree robbery. Two months after the high-profile murder, the third suspect turned himself in to police on Feb. 19, and was charged with felony murder and robbery in the first and second degree. On the same day, the first two suspects were arraigned as adults in Manhattan Criminal Court. Both pleaded not guilty to a minimum sentence of five years to life in prison.
Under New York State law, prosecutors have the discretion to try defendants as young as 14 as adults in certain cases of violent crimes. In this case, trying the young suspects in adult court not only undermines the rehabilitative mission of the juvenile system, but it will deprive them of the protections usually offered in family court — these children usually receive longer sentences and harsher penalties.
In 2001, 13-year-old Lionel Tate was tried as an adult after murdering a six-year-old girl while allegedly imitating professional wrestling moves. Tate was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, making him the youngest person in American history to receive the punishment. Similar to the media frenzy around Major’s killing, this story highlights a massive shortcoming in our criminal justice — the legal construction of juvenile crime. Allowing juveniles to be tried in adult courts is damaging to those children and undermines the mission of our criminal justice system.
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that children under the age of 18 are not eligible for the death penalty. In Simmons, the justices crucially pointed out that “[a juvenile’s] irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.” As juveniles struggle to define their identity, there exists a greater possibility that a minor’s character can be reformed through the justice system. The Court recognized the lessened culpability juveniles have as a result of their developing brains five years later in Graham v. Florida, which banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. As the Court slowly chips away at the unduly harsh punishments onto juveniles, it is crucial for legislators to expedite the process.
In tandem with this ruling, nearly 200,000 juveniles enter the adult criminal justice system each year. On any given day, some 4,500 children are housed in adult jails. Of those 4,500 children, they are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than those in juvenile facilites. They are at the highest risk of being sexually assaulted while incarcerated. Incarcerating youth has been shown to slow the natural process of aging out of delinquency, exacerbate any existing mental illness and diminish their future success in the labor market. Additionally, by being deprived of a primary education — a factor shown to deter crime — youth placed in adult prisons had 34% more rearrests.
The federal government has attempted to improve some of these factors by recommending juveniles get educational, psychological and vocational services that only juvenile detention centers can provide. However, rather than providing these essential services, some states have instead opted to ship their child detainee to other states. This rips these children away from their friends and families, and may cause them to lose access to their lawyers, leaving them even more powerless.
We maintain a separate set of courtrooms and laws for juveniles and adults because we recognize, time and time again, the mental capabilities of these two groups are fundamentally different. Our wavering commitment to these principles by trying children as adults when we deem the crime heinous enough undermines the legitimacy of our criminal justice system. We should be striving for a society that builds bridges of opportunities for children, not burn them. It’s disturbing to witness our legal system — one that doesn’t trust children to vote, serve on a jury, get married or drive and shield youth from getting sued and participating in the stock market — condemn those same children to be locked away for life.
The untimely death of Tessa Majors is clearly a tragedy, and our community suffered an immeasurable loss of the extinguishment of a soul too young. But trying the young perpetrators for her murder as adults is not justice. It’s crucial to keep the words given by the Neighborhood Defender Service in mind when we evaluate the best course of action to punish the perpetrators:
“[He is] a 14-year-old child with no criminal record or family court history. He should not be charged as an adult. In our shared history, we have seen too often the impact of hasty condemnations of children. Let us take these past experiences as a warning and allow due process to play out in our young client’s case, so that justice can prevail.”
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A version of this article appears in the Monday, Mar. 2, 2020, print edition. Email Emily Dai at [email protected]