When it comes to handling crimes committed by children and juveniles there are often no clear guidelines. Prosecutors must ask themselves many questions about the child's age as well as his maturity level. They are also left to wonder if the child can even understand that what he has done is wrong.
Wisconsin is somewhat unique in its dealings with young offenders. Our age limit for juvenile delinquency was lowered to just 10 years old, which makes it one of the lowest in the nation. Now a recent case involving an 8-year-old Wisconsin boy has some worried that the age limit could go even lower.
An 8-year-old Wisconsin boy was interviewed by police after he set a basement fire that killed a 29-year-old woman. According to police the boy admitted to starting the fire but gave two completely different stories of the details surrounding it.
In both versions he said that he tried to put out the fire but it spread too quickly. The boy has also been known to have started fires in the past, according to his own testimony and that of his parents.
The boy cannot be classified as delinquent because he's not old enough to be considered a juvenile. Sometimes age exceptions are made, such as when juveniles get tried as adults for committing serious crimes. In this case police have requested that the boy should be classified as a juvenile.
The boy's defense attorney disagrees. She believes that young children are not capable of understanding that death is forever. Therefore punishing them for murder or manslaughter would be unjust and ineffective.
She also adds that this case could set a dangerous precedent for Wisconsin. It could inspire the state legislature to change the juvenile justice code yet again and lower the age of delinquency down to just 8 years old.
Juvenile crime cases challenge our very notions of what constitutes guilt and innocence. At what age can children tell right from wrong? Should we punish a child for a crime he may not be able to understand? Will prosecuting children and juveniles negatively affect them for the rest of their lives? These are questions which may be debated for years to come.
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel online, "Fatal fire started by West Bend boy could set trend for children's cases," Gitte Laasby, 23 March 2011