“Justice for all” includes accused juveniles

Colleen Hammond | Opinions Editor

New Yorkers were shocked last December as the news of 18-year-old Barnard College student, Tessa Majors’s, stabbing death spread throughout the city.

Police suspected she was killed by a group of teenagers during an attempted robbery while she was walking through Morningside Park in Manhattan.

Almost immediately after the attack, a 13-year-old boy and two 14-year-old boys were brought in for questioning as suspects. The 13-year-old was arrested and charged with second-degree felony murder as a juvenile.

Now, two months after the murder and his initial questioning, Rashaun Weaver (age 14) has been arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree murder and multiple accounts of robbery.

After Weaver’s arrest, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, announced that the 14-year-old will be tried as an adult.

No one will argue that there shouldn’t be justice for Majors. She was a young college student whose life was brutally stripped away from her. She was stabbed multiple times, including in the heart. Those responsible for this crime must be held accountable.

However, justice cannot and will not come about from a 14-year-old boy being tried as an adult. While his alleged crimes are heinous and shocking, they do not erase the fact that Weaver is a child. He’s not even old enough to learn to drive in the state of New York, and yet, under the eyes of the law, he will be labeled an adult.

In April 2017, New York passed a state-wide Raise the Age Act that officially raised the age of criminal responsibility for non-violent offenses from 16 to 18. It also placed older teenagers accused of violent crimes and/or felonies in the “Youth Court” section of adult, criminal court, instead of juvenile court (a branch of Family Court).

This is where Weaver will be tried, even though he is two years younger than the minimum threshold for typical cases. However, a loophole in a 1978 law permits prosecutors discretion in deciding the fate of 14- and 15-year-olds accused of a small list of crimes. Weaver’s crimes fit these requirements, and he will be tried in Youth Court.

Despite the hopeful title, those tried in New York’s Youth Court still face adult consequences. If convicted, Weaver faces a lengthy sentence and little hope for a life outside of prison.

The state of New York passed the Raise the Age Act to protect children from the adult system, and yet Weaver, a middle-schooler, faces virtually the same treatment under the law as a 35-year-old man.

This is absurd. Weaver, if convicted, should pay for his crimes, but children this young cannot be held to the same standards as fully-grown adults.

At this young, Weaver’s brain is not fully developed. In fact, his age likely put him at greater risk for his crimes.

“We calculated the age at which our group of participants made the greatest proportion of risk choices to be 14.38 years,” writes University College London neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

Her research also notes that teenagers, especially younger ones, are less likely to respond to punishment.

With this being the case, it is unlikely that punitive justice measures taken against Weaver would change his behavior.

Weaver and young people accused and convicted of crimes need rehabilitative measures taken to ensure they do not remain a threat to society. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), it is more than three times expensive to incarcerate young people in juvenile detention centers.

Per day, it costs on average $241 to incarcerate juveniles in traditional and punitive detention centers. On the contrary, it costs an average of $75 per day to house the same young people in community-based rehabilitation homes.

The cost alone should entice the state to avoid the punishment looming on Weaver’s horizon if he is convicted.

Unfortunately, Weaver’s case is not an outlier, but a harsh reality for far too many of America’s young people.

In PA alone, the ACLU estimates roughly 235 young people per 100,000 are currently incarcerated, one of the highest rates in the country.

Weaver’s case must draw attention to the greater problems of juvenile justice in this country. In a country that promises a fair trial in its Constitution, it is unbelievable that a child as young as 14 can be tried as an adult and face harmful punishment. There is a reason that children are not held to the same standards as adults in terms of behavior and responsibility. It is time that the justice system recognizes that and works to ensure the full rehabilitation of young people convicted of crimes.