Monday, February 27, 2006

life decisions

this week a judge in new mexico sentenced cody posey, 16, as a juvenile, and ordered him held in state custody until he turns 21. posey, you may remember, was convicted of killing his family on sam donaldson's ranch in july 2004. he was fourteen years old at the time he shot and killed his father, stepmother, and 13-year-old stepsister. in deciding how to sentence the teenage defendant, state district judge james waylon counts found that posey suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and had acted out after years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his father and stepmother. had he been sentenced as an adult, posey would have faced 50 years in prison.

this case brings to mind the case of nathaniel abraham, the youngest person ever convicted of murder in michigan. abraham was eleven years old, 4 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 65 pounds when he killed 18-year-old Ronnie Green with a sniper shot. he was 13 in january, 2000 when the judge handed down his sentence. judge eugene arthur moore had three options: to sentence abraham as an adult, where he faced life in prison; to sentence abraham as a juvenile, in which case he would be released on his 21st birthday; or to hand down a blended sentence in which abraham could be evaluated after his time in the juvenile system and sent to prison if he was not felt to be rehabilitated. judge moore chose to sentence abraham as a juvenile, suggesting in his comments that knowing nathaniel would be released in eight years would add urgency to his care and rehabilitation. judge moore explained:

"if we were to impose a delayed sentence, we take everyone off the hook. Sentencing Nathaniel as a juvenile gives us eight more years to rehabilitate him. We as a community know that he will be back among us at age 21. If we are committed to preventing future criiminal behavior, we will use our collective efforts and financial resources to rehabilitate him and all the other at-risk youth in our community...The danger is that we won't take rehabilitation seriously if we know we can utilize prison in the future. Adult incarceration is a vital immediate solution to danger, but it does nothing to address future criminality."
nathaniel abraham is now twenty years old and will be released within the year. his court-appointed psychologist describes his progress as a "mixed picture, mostly positive." the question now is whether abraham will be released to a halfway house to transition back into the community in the last months of his sentence. at this point, those working on his case do not think he is ready. ready or not, however, within a year he will be released without supervision.

what strikes me most about these cases is the courage of the judges to take what is certainly an unpopular stand in these punitive times. there are a number of ways to argue these cases; what do you prioritize--the safety of the community, the possibility for rehabilitation, the financial cost of sentencing a boy to an entire lifetime behind bars? whatever their specific reasoning, judge moore and judge counts offer us a glimpse back into the original goals of the juvenile court and the belief that young people deserve special consideration. the world will be watching when nathaniel abraham gets out. judge moore has stayed in close contact with him. for both of their sakes, i hope he offers evidence that the juvenile system can still work and fulfill its original purpose and its ultimate promise.

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