Kids and Fire

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Five 13-15-year-olds doused a fellow 15-year-old in rubbing alcohol and set him on fire.  Newscasts can play only  the first few seconds of a neighbor’s 911 call because after that point, all you can hear is the boy’s screaming.*  He’s in a burn center, now, facing a long stretch of infections and probable organ failure, according to the doctors.

The father of one of the attackers — the 13-y.o., I think — has already come out and said his boy shouldn’t be held responsible because he was too young to understand the consequences of his actions.

That s*&^ drives me nuts.

A 13-y.o. doesn’t understand that if he sets somebody on fire!, that person is going to get horribly burned?  It’s malarkey.  It’s actually insulting to 13-year-olds everywhere.  They’re 13; not 3.

Of course the kid understood the consequences of his actions.  Just like violent teens all over the country do.  They understand perfectly what’s going to happen if you point a gun at somebody and pull the trigger; if you beat somebody with a baseball bat; if you shove somebody off a roof; if you slash somebody with a knife; if you steal some senior citizen’s medicine to get high on or sell at school.

These teens know perfectly well what they’re doing, and what the consequences are.  There’s no reason for society to apply a different set of rules to them.  If 12 to 20 years in prison is the normal punishment for assaulting somebody with a deadly weapon, it should apply equally to teenagers.  If a judge or jury wants to be lenient, based on the facts of a particular case, fine.  But the default should be the normal, full punishment.  What we have now is the other way around — kiddie rules are the norm, and prosecutors have to work against the odds to try to get teenage murderers punished as adults in specific cases.

Nor should these “kids” get a clean record the day they turn 18.

(* I don’t know why newscasts play 911 calls at all, or are allowed to.  Unless the contents become crucial during the trial, there is no news in 911 calls.  It’s just titillation.)

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10 Responses to “Kids and Fire”

  1. jazzbumpa Says:

    Actually, I could not be more strongly in disagreement. It’s a scientifically proven fact that the complete map of neural connections in a mature brain is not intact until a person is in their early 20’s.

    Yes, the 13-y-o can make the connection between lighting the fire and having something burn. The resulting string of consequences is what does not compute: fire-> burning->inferno->serious injury->unbearable pain->permanent damage/death.

    No, these immature perps did not follow the consequences of their actions though to the logical conclusion.

    There is a very good reason for not treating adolescents as if they were adults: they lack judgement, critical thinking skills, and the ability to connect cause and effect.

    The whole legal system of punishment is thoroughly whacked, too. But that is a different discussion.

  2. urbino Says:

    I expected some strong disagreement on this one, jb.

    I’m all about some neurobiology, but neurobiologists will tell you they have no idea how 98% of their physical and physiological data does or doesn’t map to complex, overdetermined psychological processes like cognition, empathy, or moral judgment, and that counting neural connections is a grossly inappropriate way to measure such things.

    I can tell you I’ve never known a normally functioning 13-y.o. who didn’t understand the consequences of setting somebody on fire. I could be wrong, but I suspect nobody I know has ever known a normally functioning 13-y.o. who didn’t understand the consequences of setting somebody on fire.

    They might not expect their particular victim will have to spend months in a hospital or even die, but that’s not at all the same thing as being unaware of those consequences.

    A good many adult assailants don’t expect their victims to be permanently injured or die, but we don’t excuse them because of that.

    Anybody who has ever burned their finger on something and seen a fire — which is everybody, by the age of 13 — knows perfectly well that setting a person on fire is going to cause extreme pain and injury.

    they lack judgement, critical thinking skills, and the ability to connect cause and effect

    I disagree. Most adolescents don’t have as good a judgment as most full adults, but they don’t lack it. Same for critical thinking skills. And, frankly, if having bad critical thinking skills excuses bad acts, the vast majority of criminals should be treated as minors.

    Your statement about cause and effect is, I think, patently false. We learn to connect cause and effect before we even start kindergarten. By the time we’re adolescents, our understanding of it is excellent.

    Now, is there a lot of stuff that adolescents don’t know or understand? Absolutely. A lot. But the fact that you’re likely to cause serious injury and pain when you set somebody on fire, or beat them with a baseball bat, or shoot or stab them is not one of those things.

  3. jazzbumpa Says:

    Your statement about cause and effect is, I think, patently false.
    If it were just A ->B, yo would probably be right, but not with all kids all the time. And less likely so for A -> B -> C -> D, etc.

    Here are a couple of quotes from the article

    Sheriff Al Lambert said, “This group of kids thought, that because the kid may have snitched him out, and turned him in because they were trying to steal his dad’s bike, they felt in their mind, it was OK to set him on fire.”

    Authorities say Bent and Jarvis laughed when they were questioned about the attack.

    Well, we both can’t be right. If I’m wrong, these kids are among the coldest and most evil people alive.

    I seriously believe they originally didn’t get, and are now deep, deep into denial.

  4. urbino Says:

    Heh. I’d say you got the choices just about right, and I’d take the other one:

    “This group of kids thought, that because the kid may have snitched him out, and turned him in because they were trying to steal his dad’s bike, they felt in their mind, it was OK to set him on fire.”

    I don’t see any lack of understanding of cause and effect, there. I see sociopathy. They didn’t think they could set him on fire without hurting him. They just thought it was okay to do so because he was going to bust them for a previous criminal act. Hurting him was the point.

    Also, there’s no A > B > C > D thinking required here. It’s a simple, direct A > B: A) set a kid on fire, B) that kid suffers extreme pain and injury.

  5. jazzbumpa Says:

    ->C kid’s injury is life-thretening ->D leads to criminal indictment –> E some type of punishment.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree. They must have thought that, irrespective of any other result, they were going to get away with it.

    If they thought it through that far. Which I still doubt.

    We’ll never know.

    Peace, my friend.
    JzB the doubtful trombonist

  6. urbino Says:

    Well of course they thought they’d get away with it. But, once again, that in no way distinguishes them from any other criminal, of any age.

    And they probably didn’t expect the results to be as dire as they were. But, once again, that in no way distinguishes them from millions of criminals, of all ages. They knew they were going to cause excruciating pain and permanent damage to another human being, and they knew it was entirely possible the damage would be severe.

    As for the fact that they didn’t expect any ramifications for themselves, I don’t understand — can’t even imagine — how that’s at all relevant.

    You’ve got kids, right? When they did something they knew they weren’t supposed to do, did you say, “That’s okay. You didn’t expect to get caught”?

    Agreeing to disagree is totally peachy with me, jb, ol’ bean. I just like to feel like I at least understand the other person’s argument, and I really don’t think I do in this case. I think there’s something I’m just missing.

  7. jazzbumpa Says:

    I’m just saying that their thought processes were not well connected with cause-and-effect reality, and they did not fully grasp eith the magnitude or the consequences of their actions.

    You’re saying they were and they did.

    By implication, I’m also suggesting that these very same people encountering this very same situation 3, 5, or 7 years later in life, rather than now, would not act as they did because they would think it through in a fundamentally different way.

    Cheers!
    JzB the agreeably disagreeable trombonist

  8. urbino Says:

    Okay. I’ll just go with the agree to disagree thing. It’s just that I’m one of those people who when they don’t understand an argument — not disagree with it, but don’t even understand the nature of the argument –it drives them batty. You know: losers.

    the agreeably disagreeable trombonist

    My favorite kind!

  9. michaellasley Says:

    The Supreme Court is going to discuss the whole punishment-for-kids thing, apparently. Although it seems they are looking at cases where teens were given life sentences and whether or not that’s too harsh. If you’re interested, the article is here.

  10. urbino Says:

    That’s an interesting article. Interesting fact-sets in the cases. If I were representing the criminals, I wouldn’t expect much, given the current make-up of the court.

    Still, those are interesting boundary cases — in terms of both age and sentencing.

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