Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Adult delinquency

Mark Kleiman of the Reality-Based Community discusses the case of 17-year-old Pat Lazear, who robbed a store and is being tried as an adult:

Now all of this is as familiar as it is depressing, except for one detail: Lazear is a star high-school football player. He was forced to switch schools, but his new teammates just elected him team captain. He will play wearing an electronic position monitoring device as an ankle bracelet.

What's more, 20 Division I colleges, including Ohio State and Alabama are still recruiting him. [...]

I have grave doubts about the wisdom of trying juveniles as adults for anything but egregious violence. And I'm always delighted to see educational institutions prepared to give a break to ex-offenders who are trying to turn their lives around.

But treating Lazear as a football player first and a criminal second seems a tad ... disproportionate, doesn't it? Especially since he doesn't seem to have any particular remorse about participating in an armed robbery?

As a Robert Heinlein character says, "juvenile delinquent" is a contradiction in terms. To be delinquent is to fail to carry out a duty, and a juvenile is someone too young to know what a duty is. But for every juvenile miscreant, there are several adults who have been delinquent in raising him. The football coach, athletic director, and principal of Wheaton High School, and the football coaches and AD's of twenty colleges and universities, are working together to tell Pat Lazear that his talent on the field means that the rules don't apply to him.

Now that's delinquency.

It is important to remember that, regardless of their state of innocence -- or otherwise -- at birth, by puberty children are a broiling cauldron of hormones, short attention spans, selfishness and half-formed minds. That's why we rightly don't treat children as adults -- they aren't fully formed yet, their brains are still growing, and more importantly, their minds, their ethical sense, is still being formed. Virtually every "juvenile delinquent" has been surrounded by adults who failed in their duty to educate and civilize the vicious little sod. It is hardly justice if the negligent adults are never called to account for their own failures, while the child is sentenced to jail as if he or she were a grown adult who should have know better.

It is moments like this that I remember Terry Pratchett's quote:

Sometimes I really think people ought to have to pass a proper exam before they're allowed to be parents. Not just the practical, I mean. -- Susan Sto Helit

I don't imply that it is only the parents who are responsible -- there is a sequence of overlapping circles responsible for forming an adult from a child: parents, teachers, coaches, role-models, society as a whole. Lazear's teachers and coaches have gone out of their way to treat him as if the rules of society don't apply to sports-stars like himself. Who is worse -- the child who acts as children do, selfish and irresponsible, or the adults who, by their actions, tell children it is okay to do so?

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