Boy killers may force change in law

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The Independent Online
WITH EMOTIONS running high at the powerlessness of the Arkansas courts to issue stiff sentences against two boys who opened fire on their own schoolyard, killing a teacher and four of their schoolmates, state legislators said yesterday they would consider changes in the law in their next session to provide "adult" punishments for serious juvenile offenders.

A county judge in Jonesboro found 14-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 12- year-old Andrew Golden guilty - or "delinquent" in the terminology of the juvenile courts - on Tuesday for the killings at Westside Middle School in March, but found himself legally unable to do more than turn them over to the care of the state.

The state, in turn, only has the power to keep them in detention until they reach adulthood, raising the possibility that the older boy could be free in as little as four years.

"The present system is designed for offenders who throw rocks through windows, not those who shoot guns at people," complained Bono Baker, a church minister active among relatives of the victims of the Jonesboro shootings.

Arkansas legislators are now drafting bills examining the possibility of trying minors as adults, or else "blending" sentences, so offenders could be transferred from a juvenile institution to a state prison once they reach 21.

There may be constitutional problems with such legislation, and anyway it could only be applied to future cases.

The best Arkansas can do, in this case,is to build a new facility to hold the two boys between the ages of 18 and 21; none exists at present.

Last week, the state governor Mike Huckabee promised to do just that in an effort to quell public anger, grief and frustration.

The high emotion in Jonesboro is not unlike the reaction to the sentences in the James Bulger murder case in Britain, in 1993.

In America, however, the problem is much larger, simply because violent crimes committed by minors are alarmingly common.

Between October 1997 and May of this year, 11 children and one adult - the Jonesboro teacher - died in school shootings as far afield as Kentucky and Oregon. In Chicago this week, two boys aged seven and eight were accused of throwing a rock at an 11-year-old girl's head, sexually molesting her and then choking her to death on her own underpants.

Most of these cases fall into a legal area of deep uncertainty, if not an outright vacuum. In the Chicago case, the two boys are too young to be held in custody, too young to be sent to a detention centre if found guilty, and very possibly too young to stand trial or even be charged with murder.

The only legal redresses in their case are psychological counselling or assignment to a foster home, possibly coupled with some kind of probation enabling a juvenile court to review their case in two or three years time.

What public opinion and the judicial system are clamouring for is not so much harsh sentencing - although there are plenty of rabble-rousing calls for that, particularly in the eye-for-an-eye, Bible-belt world of northeastern Arkansas - as some kind of clarity and moral guidance over highly troubling terrain.

Is poor parenting responsible for these horrors? Or the availability of weapons? Or the pernicious influence of television and video games? Some clarity can be gleaned from official crime statistics, which show that juvenile murder is far from a recent, or an isolated phenomenon.

Between 1991 and 1996, 15 American children under the age of nine and more than 900 aged 9-14 were accused of committing murder, either with guns or rocks.

In the Chicago area alone, under-10s have killed every two or three years since 1965. A key problem in addressing the issue is rehabilitation. Juvenile detention centres are far from ideal environments to re-establish wayward moral values, and facilities including the Alexander Youth Services Centre near Little Rock - where Johnson and Golden will be kept - have suffered allegations of mistreatment of inmates by staff.

Johnson's father vowed on Tuesday to get his son "the hell out of Arkansas" because of the risk of mistreatment, including sodomy. He claimed Mitchell had received 175 death threats, including specific allusions to how he can expect to be treated at Alexander.

A series of newspaper articles about abuse at juvenile centres ran in the Arkansas press last summer, leading to a flurry of firings across the state and the closure of the youth "diagnostic centre" at the old North Little Rock City Jail.

Alexander was not the main focus of the allegations, but as Larry Fewgate, an editor at the Jonesboro Sun, put it: "You can bet your life somebody's been sodomised there at some point in time. Ain't no facility in the state where it hasn't happened."