In early 2014, two 12-year-old girls plotted to lure a third girl into the woods in Waukesha, Wisc., where they intended to kill her. In May of that year, they carried out their plan. One of the girls stabbed their young victim repeatedly with a kitchen knife. Although the attackers left the girl to die, she survived and the pair was caught. While their crime was cold-blooded, the reason behind it was not one that is easily understood. During their interviews with police, both girls claimed that they planned the attack in an effort to please Slenderman, one of the internet’s most famous “creepypasta” characters.
Over the last year, a series of hearings attempted to ascertain the competency of the two accused young girls and to keep them out of the adult court system. One of the girls was diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia, a condition her father also battled as a young adult. She was declared incompetent to stand trial.
Two weeks ago, a judge ruled the two girls would indeed face trial as adults. As part of the justification, the judge — who, based on articles written about the case, is hell-bent on putting both girls in prison — stated that unless they stood trial as adults, the criminal justice system would lose the ability to keep them past the age of 18. The maximum sentence, if convicted, would be 65 years.
This particular case would be shocking if this country hadn’t already decided that we no longer care whether or not a person is fit to stand trial at all — either by virtue of age or mental condition. Rather, we’ve determined that it is more important to have a judicial system which irrationally treats criminal justice as a matter of retribution, a decision based primarily on our collective fear of violent crime instead of how to best deal with violent offenders. More importantly, perhaps, we have given ourselves over to the notion that our prison system is a necessary function of our economy.
Part of the problem is the extremely narrow criteria used to judge a person’s fitness to stand trial. In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dusky v. United States that defendants have the right to a full examination of their competency to stand trial, but that competency hinges only on their being able to assist with their own defense and understand the charges against them. All too often, this baseline of competency is stretched to the absolute limit when defendants who clearly are not rational are still seen as fit to stand trial.
The Slenderman case in Wisconsin may be a prime example of this. It’s hard to see how two children who essentially believed that the bogeyman was after them are competent to stand trial at all, let alone as adults. And that is another key part of the problem: America’s increasing obsession with charging children, sometimes as young as 10, as adults and subjecting them to a prison system that is simply not designed for them.
Consider the words of Catherine Jones, who, along with her brother Curtis, became the youngest children sentenced to the adult prison system in 1999 for the killing of their father’s girlfriend. “The idea of being 30 and completely dependent on others to teach me how to do these basic things isn’t appealing. I’ll leave prison just as clueless as I was at 13,” she told Florida Today in 2014. Their case is particularly interesting, as it illustrates the ways in which the system completely failed the two as children.
It might be easy to say that certain crimes are particularly heinous, and therefore certain offenders should not be afforded the same rights afforded to others. However, this would render the entire notion of equal protection under the law null and void. Moreover, this line of thinking is fed by the irrational notion that America today is somehow more depraved and violent than ever before. While cases of children committing violent crime are rare, they certainly aren’t new. You can find them going back to the 1800s, and I’m sure there are even cases that go farther back than that.
There may be no doubt at all that the two young women accused of attempted murder are in need of some form of punishment for their crime, but given both their age — and the incredibly faulty reasoning that led to their actions — it cannot be seen as an exercise in justice to have them in the adult court system.
Sadly, it appears that we live in a nation that has never truly grasped the concept of criminal justice as rehabilitative in nature and is now seemingly incarcerating people in order to justify the very existence of its bloated prison system.