is death really preferable to prison?

If convicted, Zachary Proper, 14, could face a life sentence.

As Another Young Boy Commits Suicide in an Adult Prison, We Must Rethink the Prosecution of Children as Adults

by Marsha Levick, The Huffington Post
September 23, 2014

Zachary Proper, age 15, committed suicide two weeks ago in an adult prison in Pennsylvania. There has been little media coverage of his death, suggesting a disturbing complacency about suicide by youth who would rather take their own lives than endure decades in jail.

How did Zachary end up serving time as an “adult”? At the age of 13, he was charged with killing his grandparents. Under Pennsylvania law, because Zachary was charged with murder, state law required that he be charged as an adult. He ultimately plead guilty to third degree murder of his grandparents and was sentenced to 35-80 years in prison.

Although charged as an adult, Zachary also had the right in Pennsylvania to ask the criminal court to send his case to juvenile court. His lawyer did just that. The criminal court heard testimony from Zachary himself as well as law enforcement, family members and experts who evaluated Zachary. Zachary’s parents supported their son throughout these court proceedings. While there was testimony about Zachary’s abusive childhood and a prior suicide attempt, the court declined to transfer his case to juvenile court, and was particularly troubled by the absence of a “guarantee” that Zachary would be rehabilitated by age 21, when juvenile court jurisdiction would end. Of course, no expert could offer such a guarantee. But there are highly successful, proven programs that can help kids who commit serious crimes, even those who have committed murder. The chance of success for Zachary would have been especially promising since the juvenile justice system would have had nearly eight years of his adolescence to work with him – a critical period for change and transformation as Zachary matured into adulthood.

Zachary’s story illustrates a long-standing dilemma in this country, one that claws at our nation’s conscience. What do we do with kids who commit serious crimes?

Do we toss them aside or do we finally get them the help they need and deserve as children? Thirteen year-old Zachary, who confessed to killing his grandparents, was also a good student, a member of his school’s football team, and enjoyed swimming, camping and canoeing with his family. But childhood abuse and depression were also part of his story. How can we reasonably hold children accountable for their actions, protect the public and give these children and families some hope for a positive ending?

In their recent book on contemporary justice policy for youth, Rethinking Juvenile Justice, Dr. Laurence Steinberg and Columbia Law Professor Elizabeth Scott recommend that no child younger than 15 be prosecuted and sentenced as an adult.
Dr. Steinberg and Professor Scott explain that youth younger than 15 are likely to be “significantly less culpable than their adult counterparts and substantially more vulnerable to the harsh context of adult prison.” Yet throughout the country, children as young – or younger – than Zachary routinely face adult prosecution and adult prison sentences. Many of these children have a history of abuse or untreated mental illness. But does age or circumstance matter in the U.S. justice system?

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that children must be treated differently in our courts, recognizing the developmental immaturity, reduced impulse control, reduced ability to understand long-term consequences and thus reduced culpability of youth who are charged even with the most serious crimes. This is not to say they should not be held accountable, but rather, that they should be held accountable in age-appropriate ways. The transfer laws that placed 13-year-old Zachary at the door of the criminal justice system are vestiges of the 1990’s, steeped in the discredited super-predator myth that was short on facts and ignorant of the research spearheaded by experts like Dr. Steinberg and Professor Scott. How can we possibly be surprised by this outcome when we’ve only compounded one tragedy with another?

This story begs the question, what is justice when it comes to children? There is no other instance where children magically become adults because of their behavior; indeed, we steadfastly (and rightly) resist any calls to lower the age at which children can take on “adult” responsibilities such as driving, buying alcohol, buying cigarettes, or serving on juries. We don’t make individual exceptions to these legislative prohibitions simply because a child can momentarily behave like an adult. Why? Because we don’t believe that these children have the capacity to consistently act responsibly or to make decisions that could permanently affect their lives.

Clearly, we must balance the rights of the child with public safety. That is paramount. But persisting in transferring children like Zachary to the adult criminal justice system simply invites another tragedy. Zachary’s story is a reflection of what happens to children when we wrong-headedly treat them as adults. They have no hope.

At 13, Zachary Proper was not an adult. No legal fiction can undo that fact; the tragedy of Zachary Proper’s life and death must shatter this inimical public policy once and for all. While we will likely never really know what drove Zachary to kill his grandparents, or what drove him to take his own life at 15, what we do know suggests a child reacting to abuse and distress in his own life in a way that only compounded his family’s heartache and loss. While Zachary’s actions were unquestionably the actions of a seriously troubled child, we, as the grown-ups in the room, must do better. Until we begin to truly treat children like children in this country, the tragedies will only continue.



Groove of the Day

Listen to John Bahler, Tom Bahler, Ron Hicklin and Ian Freebairn-Smith performing “Suicide Is Painless” (MASH Theme)


6 Responses to “is death really preferable to prison?”

  1. September 25, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Another inexplicable tragedy. Zachary may have killed himself at age 15, but it was the Court that killed him at the age of 13. Furthermore, only a sadist would take all hope away, but keep the victim alive. We don’t even do that to animals. And America prosecutes such people. A 15 yo child is dead because nobody in the system would ever accept responsibility for his actions. Guarantees? Can you guarantee your next door neighbour will never kill anyone? Can you guarantee YOU will never kill anyone? After working with a 13 yo for say 2 years, shouldn’t the system, with all its experts, be able to vouch for the child and correct any possible flaws in his behavior?

    And I would like to add one more very important difference between a child and an adult. Adult is (or should be) able to realize the errors of his ways and correct his behavior, regardless of his upbringing and influences, on his own. A child is not. Children brought up in a violent environment need help to process, realize and understand. Undoubtedly, older children should have greater capacity for understanding and thus greater responsibility, so the punishment for any crime should be gradually increased. Also, punishment for more serious crimes should be more serious than for “lesser” ones. But a child is never an adult and can never be treated nor punished like one.

    The punishment for childrens’ actions should be expanded to the parents, teachers, social workers, local government offices, mayors, media and everyone else who is responsible for a child acting like a criminal. Then, we could see the birth of a society determined to really take care of its children. At least like most animals do. Because every single child’s life should be both protected and mourned by entire planet.

  2. 2 BobH
    September 25, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Drawing together Alex’s comments on feelings when sentenced, this case, and Paul Henry’s, it is clear that two-way sentencing would avoid much of the issue over whether incarceration until 18 or thereabouts would allow enough time for rehabilitation for a particular kid.

    In Britain, the sentence for a juvenile instead of life is “detained at her majesty’s pleasure” which amounts to a quaint implementation of “conditional release when safe to do so, after a minimum term”.



    • September 25, 2014 at 6:28 pm

      Many same animals will have different lifestyles if living in different places. And yet, they will always treat their youngs the same. Whether you look at elephants in Africa or Asia, it’s the same thing. Ants in Australia will do the same as those in Europe. And yet we humans, supposedly the most intellgent and evolved, treat our children so differently, based on nothing but their address. Not just children, of course, as anyone who’s ever been asked for a visa will confirm. But it is with children that the.. obscenity of it becomes so clear.

      Also, speaking of animals, it’s interesting that as you move up on the evolution and intelligence scale, you see them care more and more about family and the young. Elephants, chimps, dolphins… and then such an incredible drop when you reach homo sapiens. A 13 yo boy was killed by the system. And nobody seems to care. Can’t imagine worse crime.

      Btw, I have also been reading Alex’s posts and his experience was very valuable. I would actually like to hear more about those very first days and weeks, from his perspective, in his own words. I know, we can all imagine. And yet, I think we actually can’t.

  3. 4 anonymouse
    September 25, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    If only there was a way to ensure this tragedy had an impact on the individuals and system that sentenced him to such a slow death!

  4. September 25, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    The prison system is a money making game and every prisoner or future prisoner becomes the property of the system. Death or life behind bars and 30 year sentence for a 30 year old or a 10 year old is the same by the system. The government has said that no child is left behind so they use the adult crime for adult time to justify their madness. The issue of cruel and unusual punishment means nothing in the court of law , justice does not exist equally to any man, woman or child if there is one empty cell. Empty cell means no money.

    There are no answers because they change the question on a regular basis. The United States treat their children worst than 99% of the rest of the world because the attitude has been and will remain they’re not my child so why should I care ? They would send a donation to save an animal and watch on television how children are starving even here in the U.S. I could go on but I would just become more pissed off, this is one Army Veteran who has become ashamed of how our kids are treated right here in the LAND OF THE FREE…..

  5. 6 Jeanne
    October 7, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Just terrible what we do to our young people. Truly inhumane.

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