Why Sentencing Children As Adults Is A Bad Idea

In the wake of the killing of Danvers teacher Colleen Ritzer, Massachusetts once again grapples with our backwards laws.

As tight-knit Danvers mourns the tragic death of Colleen Ritzer, the 24-year-old math teacher found dead last week near Danvers High School, there’s some concern with what could be another potential tragedy. Ritzer’s accused killer, Philip Chism, a 14-year-old Danvers High student, is being held for murder, and in spite of his age, will be tried as an adult in an adult court.

What that means for Chism is not entirely clear given that a Grand Jury has not yet officially indicted him for first- or second-degree murder and that the laws for juveniles are in limbo, but the state’s history of juveniles being tried and sentenced as adults paints a bleak picture for youth.

Since 1996, Massachusetts has had a law on the books that’s one of the harshest in the nation, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Fair Sentencing for Youth. Unlike nearly every other state in the country, Massachusetts requires a trial in the adult criminal court for anyone who is 14 or older and charged with murder. Since Chism has been arraigned as an adult and will be tried in an adult court, there is no mechanism for the current case to be moved into the juvenile court system.

This is particularly hard to swallow for many reasons. One is that Massachusetts is known as a leader in juvenile justice. “Massachusetts has statewide juvenile courts, well-trained judges, excellent juvenile court clinics, a juvenile defense bar, and one of the best Department of Youth Services in the country,” said Josh Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. He pointed out that much of the groundbreaking research on adolescent development has come out of the University of Massachusetts, and cited the state’s new “Raise the Age” law, which includes 17-year-olds in the juvenile system excluding those accused of murder.

Naoka Carey, executive director of the education and advocacy agency Citizens for Juvenile Justice, explained that sentencing any youth as a juvenile does not mean holding him or her any less accountable. “We can’t proceed in a world where we pretend they aren’t kids because whether or not you try them as adults, their brains are still not developed,” Carey said. “They are subject to peer influences in ways adults aren’t, and they don’t yet have life experience to deal with influences such as growing up in violent communities.”

Advocates like Carey point out another catch-22 for Massachusetts that could come into play in Chism’s case. In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to impose a mandatory life without parole sentence for those younger than 18 at the time of the crime. Essentially, the Court struck down all statutes that require a child to be sentenced to die in prison; in Massachusetts, that means juveniles convicted of first-degree murder who are automatically sentenced to life without the eligibility of parole. Currently, there are 62 such prisoners behind bars now caught up in this insane limbo. They’re awaiting the result of a decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court—expected in December or January—that will not only have implications for the fate of those 62, but will answer many critical questions about sentencing in Massachusetts. To Chism, life without parole could certainly pose a problem since, as The Coalition for Fair Sentencing of Youth states, our life without parole law for juveniles has essentially been ruled “illegal.”

And then there’s the problem of what happens when juveniles actually get to prison. Put simply, exactly what kind of punishment Massachusetts decides for its youth has great bearing on who they eventually become as adults. If sentenced to adult prisons, teens are more vulnerable for suicide, depression, and illnesses such as asthma; they make up a largely disproportionate total of prison rapes; and they’re often kept in protective custody, which is essentially solitary confinement, according to Carey.

Dohan pointed out that in national polls across the country, “… the vast majority want kids to be held accountable, not in a way that ruins the rest of their lives, but so they can succeed back in the community. They should be in school, getting skills and other kinds of programs such as anger management, and alcohol and substance abuse counseling.”

This means that the best option for juveniles is the juvenile system—not adult prisons. Carey and her organization are hoping that one of the six or so bills in the Legislature might make a difference in trying and sentencing juveniles as adults, and bring Massachusetts in line with the Supreme Court’s decision. But all of this takes time, and it’s unclear at this point how any proposed changes will affect Chism’s case.

But the advocates are clear on the best way to treat juveniles such as Chism.“No one is the same person at 30 that they were at 14,” Carey said. “Given that we know adolescents change, our laws have to provide for some meaningful possibility to show that they deserve to come back into society.”

  • Musto

    If he committed this crime, who cares if he gets raped. Maybe he WILL commit suicide.

    • BARRY KEYER

      Barry Unfortunately life is not always just. It is very easy and intellectually dishonest, insensitive and selfish to argue that Philip Chism should ever be released in society. If you think he will definitely be rehabilitated then when he is ultimately released invite him to be your next door neighbor.

  • ✨♉ Nicole ♉✨

    OMGGG FINALLY SOMEONE SEE’S THE LIGHT. JUVENILES CAN BE REHABILITATED AND HAVE NO BUSINESS IN ADULT PRISONS!!!! This article is excellent I agree.

    • Leigh

      Come back when your friend/mother/sister whoever is brutally murdered by a juvenile. One who planned it, then went and ate some dinner and watched a movie and has shown no remorse. This “kid” deserves to be tried in adult court and be punished accordingly.

      • Jim Beam

        …..all of that could be because he snapped, became detached from emotions, and was on autopilot.

        According to divorce documents, when he was two, mom alleged severe abuse and alcoholism–specifically asking for limited, supervised visitation for dad; why was that ?

        This was a rage killing–what happened to this kid to instill such rage, keep it bottled up until it exploded ?

      • ✨♉ Nicole ♉✨

        You couldn’t be more wrong!!! I was once this juvenile facing serious time. When the courts wanted to throw me away like I was trash. It was my Probation Officer, my Social worker and my CASA Advocate that saved my life!!!!! I have been rehabilitated. I have been returned to society. I’m happy to say I have learned from my mistakes and I have never been in trouble since.
        I’m NOT disputing he shouldn’t be punished, I am saying he should be tried as a JUVENILE to face his crime if found guilty.

    • Cinqcinq

      Nope, not for psychopaths honey.

  • N Sig

    I agree with Musto — This freak killed an innocent teacher – does anyone care about her? 24 years old – prime of her life — This heinous crime deserves a severe sentence – life in prison is almost too good for this scum.

  • Rich

    Are you serious? I don’t want him rehabilitated and released back into society. He is a MURDERER and killed an innocent person for no reason and doesn’t deserve anything . . . period.

    Murder is an adult crime and the penalty should be an adult penalty. Give me a break. Keep this loser off of my streets and your ridiculous bleeding-heart opinion to yourself..

  • Ninja0980

    In many cases I am opposed to trying juveniles as adults,even some murder cases (like where the teen wasn’t the actual perp or it wasn’t planned.)
    Many times they actually can be reformed and become productive members of society.
    This case isn’t one of them though. Any time you have someone this young comitting a sexually motivated homicide,it bodes ill for the future.
    Many serial killers start out at a young age and the fact he’s already done a rape,kidnapping and murder at the age of 14 is a red flag.
    If he gets out again at 21,it won’t be a question of IF he will kill again but when.
    Sorry folks,even for somone like me who is a strong believer in juvenile justice,there are limits and this case is one of them.

    • oBar

      Rich, no action can turn a child into an adult. Only time can do that. Human brains are not fully developed until 23-25 years of age. Boys are closer to the 25 end. This child will be fully developed 11 years from now. How can we possibly know what kind of person this child will develop into so early in his life?

      Treating children as children and prosecuting through the juvenile justice system also reduces reoffending and leads to safer communities. Not only is trying children in juvenile court more effective, it also saves tax payer money.

      What this child did was horrible and wrong. That doesn’t mean adults now need to respond in a horrible and wrong way. We can be better than that.

      Sorry… hit the wrong reply button.

    • Jim Beam

      “Any time you have someone this young comitting a sexually motivated homicide..”

      ……what has been released to lead you to that jump off ?

      Very little has been released–actually even the search warrant of Chism’s mother’s house has been impounded.

      We may know more Monday at 2 pm when the judge rules on whether the media can be denied due to concerns about tainting grand jury testimony.

  • Earl Turner

    Chism looks like a young version of Obama. Maybe that will help him with the right type of jury.

  • Musto

    Jean, why don’t you take him in?

  • wabbott

    People are so warm-hearted and fuzzy with their rehabilitation ideas as long as they don’t have to live in neighborhoods with the “rehabilitated”. Why can’t they see that someone like Chism really needs to be eliminated from the population and the gene-pool? Look at the risk-reward factors involved in letting someone like him back into the general population and (God forbid!) reproducing. You want to make the world a better place tomorrow? Then don’t be squeamish about sterilizing and eliminating people who are doing evil today.

  • DLT88

    In this case and from what I’ve read, it sounds like this young man has a mental illness going on. It was reported that he was COLD and showed no emotion the night they brought him in and he confessed about the whole thing and what he did with her body. A sociopath can do that. If this act of murder was brought on by emotion, he would have been very emotional when caught. But he wasn’t. He had not one ounce of emotion. I feel he is dangerous out in society. Not all sociopaths commit murder, but this one did.

  • John Smith

    Jean, sorry to say this, but you are dumb. You say, ” If sentenced to adult prisons, teens are more vulnerable for suicide, depression, and illnesses such as asthma; they make up a largely disproportionate total of prison rapes; and they’re often kept in protective custody, which is essentially solitary confinement, according to Carey.” All of these things are not enough to happen to this kid who demonstrated pure evil in his actions. Suicide is an easy way out for this monster.

  • John Smith

    Please throw him into general population and let him get ripped to pieces like the monster he is. That is the only way to deal with pure evil.

  • Marlies Henderson

    Jean, you fight a good fight. Your voice counts even if it is drowned out by a flood of merciless comments. This nation has closed mental institutions and builds prisons to mask the mistake. It proclaims freedom and locks up tenfold as many citizens as any other developed country. To imprison the insane is insane and inhumane. To do this at the expense of the taxpayers is criminal.

  • Joseph E. Brown

    If a 14 year old with a boxcutter and a will to use it against another person is deemed a monster – what does it say about the people ready to do the same to him in the spirit of vengeance???

  • Raygirl

    Honestly, this is a tough kind of case. I work in a school with children his age. They are always fighting each other, still children but they think they are grown. They question everything you say. At the same time, I know they are silly children who don’t realize that fighting can have serious consequences, especially if these things are not taught at an early age. I particularly work with special education, behavioral classrooms, where majority of the children have emotional problems or ADHD. Some of them have lower form of Autism that, from first glance they seem normal, but then when you deny them what they want they scream, holler, and threaten you. Some of them get violent. And many of them the next day forget what they did to you.

    To commit a murder is a very serious crime though. If one of the students I worked with were to do something like that, I would still believe in giving the maximum punishment. The reason for this is because a child that’s not normal does not understand consequences. The only way to make them understand is by giving them the punishment that meets the crime. Talking to them never works. It might calm them down for a minute, but then they are right back to doing what they did before.

    In Phillip’s case, even though he is a child, he needs to understand that doing something like this creates serious consequences. Life in prison would do some good for him. Even if he is released and changes over time….he will never be able to get a job. No one will see him the same, not even his own family. What is left for Chism? To become a killer again, most likely. Unless he moves to a different country, his life will still be a prison with no walls. He’s honestly better off in jail. :/

  • Cinqcinq

    Jeffery Dahmer got his urges at that same age. You cannot fix psychopathy! Fact, plain and simple. He would have only continued on this path if not caught. Lock him up forever, he is one of the very dangerous people