Wednesday 19 January 2011

Johnson: Charge 10-year-old as an adult in accidental fire? Grow up

Go for broke. Put the kid on the stand.
This is the reason I do not practice law, and would be quite bad at it if I did because I would go all in.
I'd put the kid up there, let those who will judge him soak in the absurdity of it all, that we live in a world that sees fit to charge a mere boy with a felony.
Jacob Christenson is 11.
More to the point, he was 10 last May when he and a buddy were playing with a lighter they found at their Parker townhome complex.
They put it to a piece of paper. The flame rose quickly and burned the buddy, who flung the lit paper into a dry pine bush.
By the time firefighters were done, a nearby townhome lay smoldering, the damage totaling nearly $200,000.

In other times, the grown-ups would have convened, exchanged apologies and homeowner insurance papers, and little Jacob might have spent some time out in the woodshed.

Not anymore. Jacob and his buddy are charged with criminal mischief and second-degree arson, a felony.

A conviction at trial scheduled to begin Feb. 17 could land the two boys in the juvenile criminal system for two years.

There is so much that is wrong with this. When did we start viewing children as something other than just that?

When did we begin to believe they have capabilities beyond what nature, science and old-fashioned common sense long ago revealed to us they cannot possibly possess?

A 10-year-old arsonist?


I ran these questions past Mary Ellen Johnson, executive director of the Pendulum Foundation in Denver, who has gained renown as an advocate for child prisoners and for challenging laws that can send juveniles to adult prison.

She is passionate on the subject of juvenile justice, having been at it for more than 20 years. The story of Jacob Christenson outrages her, and at the same time it puts her into deep despair.

"How is it possible for the district attorney to at all think it appropriate to charge such a young boy with a felony, to ruin his life? What is the point?" she says.

She said she has never heard of a DA seeking felony charges against a 10-year-old.

The true reason at this point can only be guesswork because my call to District Attorney Carol Chambers' office was not returned.
Maybe, I say to Johnson, she is trying to set an example, to teach other kids not to play with fire. This only enrages her.

"Charging this boy does not help anyone. He is a child. The older I get, the less I understand about our system of justice," she said.
Maybe we get older and simply forget what it is like to be 10 years old.
This is what Johnson believes.

"We are attempting to put adult reasoning on our children. And, God, help us, that is so unfair.

"Doesn't it say a lot about our country and how we view our children?" she said. "It says we don't care. It says we have become a selfish, moralistic society that somewhere along the way lost its compassion."
So yes, put him up there in his best clothes, and maybe a fresh new haircut. Have him explain how he is just a kid, how it was an accident, how he is sorry.

Let the chips fall.

Bill Johnson

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