Not the actions of a child: Treating juveniles as adults
What a difference two years and a murder conviction can make.
In Post photos, young Christopher Crocker appears to have evolved from defiant teenager at his arrest in 2006 to apologetic adolescent at his day of judgment last Thursday.
Which is the real Christopher Crocker? Everyone goes through changes between the ages of 15 and 17. Having spent 16 months in juvenile detention awaiting trial, Crocker may have changed more than most. He could have wised up. Or he might have become more hardened ó and a better actor.
I thought jurors might go soft and choose manslaughter instead of murder after Crocker cried on the stand about the crime he’d committed. But they weren’t buying it. A boy who swipes his dad’s truck and steals gasoline with enough forethought and savvy to cover the license plate is no stranger to trouble. The head-on collision with Marsha Ludwick’s car as she drove to work that August morning was not premeditated, but the ill intent that put Crocker behind the wheel of the truck sure was.
A juvenile court judge concluded that these were not the actions of a child and ordered Crocker tried as an adult. There a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder, for which a judge sentenced him to 11 years in prison.
“The whole thing is sad for everybody,” said District Attorney Bill Kenerly the day after sentencing. “It’s one of those things you can’t take much pleasure in.”
If Crocker’s run had ended with the gasoline drive-off instead of a fatal crash, he would have stayed within the protective confines of the juvenile justice system ó a system he’d been in before, including an eight-week stint at a wilderness camp in South Carolina.
He’s far from the first under-16 defendant to face adult time for his crime. There are several infamous national cases, such as the Florida 12-year-old whose “wrestling” killed a 6-year-old playmate.
In Rowan County, Kenerly says he has tried five or six other young juveniles for murder in his 17 years as district attorney, and another is awaiting trial now for young Brooklyn Jones’ death. Kenerly has tried 10 young teens for armed robbery, he says. The more violent the crime, the more certain the teen will be tried as an adult.
The pendulum of public opinion is swinging again. The death penalty is on hold, and the practice of trying teens as adults is under close scrutiny in North Carolina.
In this case, we’re not talking about the Christopher Crockers, the under-16 kids who get themselves into big trouble.
What reformers are focused on right now are the 16- and 17-year-olds whom North Carolina automatically tries as adults. They may not be able to vote or join the military, but kids who break the law after turning 16 might as well be 18 or 20. I’ve explained that to many upset parents over the years after their teens’ names appeared in the newspaper’s police blotter.
After reaching 16, teens go through the adult system for any offense, from a fight in school to rape. Some people say that’s not right.
“The adult system should be reserved for the most serious, chronic and violent offenders,” says a report from Action for Children North Carolina, one of the groups lobbying for change.
Only North Carolina, New York and Connecticut treat youths 16 to 17 as adults, and Connecticut has passed legislation to phase out the practice. That leaves two states.
So in North Carolina, a kid convicted of a drug violation at 16 will find, after turning 18, that he cannot vote, cannot legally own a gun and will have trouble landing a job.
Action for Children cites several reasons to rethink that treatment of 16- and 17-year-olds:- Recent research finds the brain is still undergoing “explosive change” during adolescence. As a result ó news flash ó teens rely heavily on emotions and gut feelings and are prone to high-intensity feelings.
– Teenagers who do time in adult prisons are more likely to become repeat offenders, according to other research. The system is just training young criminals, critics say.
Kenerly is not swayed.
“In the 34 years that I’ve been in the Rowan County Courthouse, I’ve never seen juveniles as violent as they are now,” the D.A. says, and calls raising the age to 18 counterproductive.
“I’m opposed to it,” he says. So is the state District Attorneys’ Association.
I see a lot more teenagers getting away with misdeeds than being unfairly punished by the system. I’m out of the loop, of course, on the outside looking in. But Kenerly is in the trenches.
He sees trouble, and it doesn’t start at age 18.
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.