What do you do with two 12-year-old girls who stabbed a friend in the woods multiple times to appease a sinister character from popular horror fiction? It’s a tough question, and there aren’t any easy answers, but I’ll tell you what you don’t do: You don’t deny them their Miranda rights, and you don’t charge them as adults.
But that’s exactly what’s happening to two girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
We essentially have two different criminal justice systems in the United States: one for children and one for adults. We do this because, as a society, we have come to recognize that children are often products of their environment — that they sometimes lack the cognitive ability to make fully rational decisions and that we are to teach, and redirect, our children rather than just punish them.
The sentences we mete out in our justice system are designed to punish, to rehabilitate, and to keep dangerous individuals away from the rest of society. The standards for what are effective punishment and rehabilitation for a juvenile — who has not fully developed their capacity to reason — are and should be different that the standards imposed on adults.
A child who is a danger to society, with proper care, may not necessarily grow to be a danger as an adult. This is why, in many states, we’ve banned the death penalty and life sentences for minors.