I couldn’t say for sure when I first learned I was an adult, but there’s a good chance it was June 6, 1998. On that day, I had my bar mitzvah. All I had to do was recite a small portion of Torah. Though I would continue for a while the youthful activities that had until then occupied my time — homework, obsessive cataloging of baseball cards, assiduous avoidance of girls (no longer icky, but still terrifying) — I had earned adult status.
The status, I later discovered, was a fiction, but without consequences. For some people, though, the consequences of fictitious adulthood can be significant.
One such person is Philip Chism. His name provokes no sympathy, nor should it. But it should provoke a degree of puzzlement.
In October, Chism, who is 14, allegedly murdered his Danvers High School teacher, Colleen Ritzer. When, according to the indictment against him, he stabbed her to death, he became, in the eyes of the law, an adult. Yet when he also allegedly robbed and raped her, crimes that appear to have occurred in the same school bathroom, during same 12-minute span, he was a child. Today, he stands accused as an adult murderer and as a juvenile thief and rapist.
This fiction, whereby Chism is both adult and juvenile, is the product of a state law passed in 1994, which requires that individuals accused of first-degree murder be tried as adults. Every time the law is applied, but especially this time, given the contradictory charges against Chism, it raises a question that penetrates to the foundations of criminal justice. If there are good reasons to treat adult and youth offenders differently, why are those reasons discarded according to the severity of the crime?
On December 24, in an unrelated case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts suggested that it shouldn’t be — that the concerns motivating the adoption of a separate juvenile criminal process should not be ignored even in the cases of the most destructive offenses.
Holding that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder must be granted the possibility of parole, the Court described “distinctive characteristics of youth, which do not vary based on the nature of the crime committed . . . . even when [juveniles] commit terrible crimes.”
While the Court made clear that “the severity of [first-degree murder] cannot be minimized even if committed by a juvenile offender,” and while the Court maintained that it “is within the purview of the Legislature to treat juveniles who commit murder in the first degree more harshly than juveniles who commit other types of crimes,” it never strayed from the “‘precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned’ to both the offender and the offense.” That precept was announced by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The notion that juveniles should be subject to different criminal trial procedures and outcomes stems from two commitments. The first is that a person found guilty must be culpable for the crime of which he is convicted.
The special challenge presented by youth culpability has been with us for ages. Early civil and religious legal systems — Roman, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, English common law — delineated points at which children were considered mature enough to warrant certain punishments. Years weren’t always determinative. As William Blackstone put it in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, “The capacity of doing ill, or contracting guilt, is not so much measured by years and days, as by the strength of the delinquent’s understanding and judgment.”
These days, we tend to put the legal age of adulthood at 18, on the assumption that young people are unable to sort out the consequences of a variety of important decisions — an assumption supported by research into the human brain. Psychologists and neuroscientists have found that impulse control and the ability to think in terms of future consequences are physically underdeveloped in the brain until after adolescence.
The second commitment concerns competence. Only the competent can be considered guilty, a factor that usually arises in trials of the mentally ill. But many young people share this particular kind of incompetence. In a 2003 study, Thomas Grisso, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and his colleagues found, “Approximately one-third of 11- to 13-year-olds, and approximately one-fifth of 14- to 15-year-olds, are as impaired in capacities relevant to adjudicative competence as are seriously mentally ill adults who would likely be considered incompetent to stand trial.”
A defendant incompetent to stand trial is a defendant denied due process. And every defendant — even Chism, who is charged with a gruesome crime — is owed due process. If 20 percent of defendants his age are not competent to stand as adults, how confident can we be that his trial will be a fair one? A defendant can request a competency evaluation, but courts generally recognize mental illness, not immaturity, as a source of legally relevant incompetence.
Many observers will celebrate the fact that Chism is facing the adult process, believing that it will produce the harshest possible punishment. They may be right about that, although the juvenile system is hardly lenient. And due process requirements don’t exist solely to protect defendants, but also convictions: trying a juvenile via the adult process raises the possibility of appeal on the basis of incompetence.
But regardless of what happens to Chism, we are left with a state law that disables the juvenile system and creates a bizarre scenario in which a defendant can be simultaneously youth and adult. If the division between juvenile and adult justice serves any purpose, and if the law is supposed to provide a rational means of adjudicating harm, then the sacrifice of these aims should be a cause not of celebration but of alarm.