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Crimes that test our values

Harsh, rigid sentencing makes little sense when it comes to child offenders.

By William DiMascio

In many respects, our society is more interested in punishing wrongdoing than correcting it. Nowhere is this more obvious than in how we deal with juveniles who commit violent crimes.

Pennsylvania's Superior Court is being asked to determine if Jordan Brown should be tried as a juvenile or as an adult for the fatal shooting of his father's pregnant fiancee when he was just 11 years old. If Brown is found guilty as an adult, he'll be sentenced to life without parole. If found guilty as a juvenile, he will be confined for no more than nine years, until he is 21.

There is no in-between in Pennsylvania. In other states, "blended" sentences allow some juvenile offenders to serve time until they reach adulthood, whereupon courts evaluate their rehabilitation efforts and decide if continued confinement is in order.

Lawrence County District Attorney John Bongivengo said Brown's alleged crime against Kenzie Houk and her unborn child was a "premeditated, cold killing." Jordan is charged with using a 20-gauge shotgun that his father gave him for Christmas to shoot the woman as she slept in their home in Wampum, then rushing off to catch his school bus. State troopers picked him up hours later at Mohawk Elementary School.

The prosecutor contends that Jordan was motivated by his jealousy of the new baby. The defense has maintained that he is innocent.

Common Pleas Judge Dominick Motto originally ruled that the case should be heard in adult court, saying the boy was an unlikely candidate for rehabilitation in a juvenile setting because he refused to take responsibility for the crime. But defense attorneys argued that Jordan could not be asked to take responsibility for the crime without violating his constitutional protection against self-incrimination. So Motto changed his order to permit an appeal to Superior Court.

Legal proceedings there will determine the fate of young Jordan Brown. But the case raises deeper philosophical issues, as have thousands of other cases in which juveniles faced terminal sentences - either death, which the U.S. Supreme Court has now prohibited in juvenile cases, or life without the possibility of parole, which the high court recently banned in juvenile cases not involving homicide. The United States and Somalia are the only countries in the world that refused to ratify a U.N. pact outlawing such terminal sentencing of children.

A growing body of scientific evidence argues powerfully against such harsh punishment of individuals whose brain function is not yet mature. Yes, they know right from wrong. But their ability to reason, understand the consequences of their actions, and control their impulses is not fully developed.

These issues take us to the edges of justice, where a one-size-fits-all legal system fits far less comfortably. This is the point where we decide if we are an optimistic society, or one that throws people away in the name of vengeance.

Here in Pennsylvania, we have built an unbending system ruled by our most hardened emotions. Some 450 men and women - more than in any other state, or nation for that matter - are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed before they could legally vote, sign contracts, or buy a beer.

We didn't think they were old enough to participate in government. But we were sure that they were irredeemable. We decided these children had to be put away forever so they wouldn't kill again, even though data show they are the least likely re-offenders.

Jordan Brown was coping with an extraordinary situation. He saw his father's affection suddenly being shared with a girlfriend. He and his father had recently moved into the home the woman shared with two daughters by an earlier relationship. And the woman was carrying his father's baby, which was due within weeks and, it was said, was going to be named after his father.

None of this in any way justifies the killing or mitigates the loss and anguish of the victim's family. But something needs to be said about the emotional loss and dread that an 11-year-old boy was coping with.

We as a civilized society should rise above emotion. We should punish the offender if we must. But we should also recognize the humanity in everyone - although the offender failed to recognize it in his victim, and maybe even because we need to be better than that.