March 26, 2012
Rutgers Hate Crime and "Youth as a Defense": Misconceptions Abound
A recent and disturbing New York Times headline underscores how little is understood about youth, human brain development, and the law. This is exactly how harmful public perceptions are created and perpetuated—when people in influential positions make sweeping conclusions based upon incomplete information. The headline read: "Rutgers Verdict Repudiates Notion of Youth as Defense." (For those of you rushing to look up the precise meaning of the word "repudiate," allow us to save you some time. Repudiate: To reject emphatically as unfounded, untrue, or unjust).
The story was written in response to a recent verdict in the high-profile Rutgers University hate crime case. Eighteen-year-old Rutgers freshman Dharun Ravi used a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, and invited friends to watch as Mr. Clementi engaged in a sexual encounter with another man. Tragically, Mr. Clementi committed suicide a few days later. Prosecutors charged Mr. Ravi with a hate crime. His attorney characterized Mr. Ravi's behavior as nothing more than a stupid college kid prank. But the jury wanted the 18-year-old to be held accountable and found Mr. Ravi guilty.
The article went on to say, "The failure of the jerky-kid defense is likely to change the legal landscape by showing that jurors can conclude that young people who are sophisticated enough to spy on, insult and embarrass one another electronically are sophisticated enough to be held accountable." And, "the notion of innocent youth as a shield to culpability might not hold as much sway as it once did in court... ." That anyone, much less the New York Times or other legal professionals, would draw such an all-encompassing conclusion based upon this case is alarming.
What if the person who spied, embarrassed, and insulted the other person was a 10-year-old? Plausible behavior for a 10-year-old child? Certainly. Just ask any elementary school teacher or parent. But few well-reasoned jurists would come to the same conclusion for a 10-year-old as they did in Mr. Ravi's case. Why? Because whether one is a parent or an adolescent brain researcher, it is not difficult to recognize that children do not possess the same level of judgment as young adults. We don't treat 3-year-olds the same way we treat 10-year-olds, nor do we treat 14-year-olds the same way we treat 18-year-olds.
Justice Sotomayor made this point in the spring of 2011, in a case involving whether young teens would think that they are "in custody," a condition that should trigger Miranda warnings. The Justice observed that "... officers and judges need no imaginative powers, knowledge of developmental psychology, training in cognitive science, or expertise in social and cultural anthropology to account for a child's age. They simply need the common sense to know that a 7-year-old is not a 13-year-old, and neither is an adult."
Children, and especially teenagers, are impulsive, highly susceptible to peer pressure, and blind to long-term consequences of behavior. There are few among us who didn't do something in our childhood or teenage years that we didn't later question or regret.
The question this case raises isn't whether this verdict 'repudiates youth as a defense'—because it most certainly does not. The more important question is whether the jury held Mr. Ravi, an adult defendant, accountable in a way that was appropriate for his age. Juvenile Law Center recognizes that we all need to be held accountable for our actions, including children and teens—but in age-appropriate ways. As child advocates, our goal is not to "get kids off the hook" for their behavior, but rather to hold them accountable in an age-appropriate way so that society will be safe as they learn to become more responsible citizens.