Florida Voices Grapple With Shaloh Joseph Case

The Miami Herald weighs in on the challenge that the Shaloh Joseph case poses for the Florida juvenile justice system. Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is defending the boy charged with killing his 17-month-old cousin, says, “This type of case challenges all of us–prosecutors, public defenders and judges.”

And this:

Dan Mears, who worked for about three years with delinquent youths in Texas, and now teaches criminology at Florida State University, said such cases are “outliers,” and present far greater challenges to judges, prosecutors and youth corrections administrators than most youthful crime.

“These are just hard cases,” Mears said. “The public wants punishment. But these kids don’t fit in the adult world, in an adult prison. They don’t fit really well in the juvenile system, either.”

The public, Mears said, wants children who kill to have their lives “deep-sixed for a while — and it’s hard to generate sympathy. No matter how much the kid is a kid — no matter how much they can be rehabilitated — people want 10 or 15 years out of the kid’s life, maybe more.”

From where I’m sitting, the comments of Representative Gus Barreiro, who runs a treatment program for young offenders in North Miami, seem the most sensible. Barreiro acknowledges that the crime is “horrific” not only for the family of the baby but also for the boy. “But we have to have a threshold, as a society, where we will not make a decision to throw away the key on a 12-year-old,” he says. Indeed. And further, as attorney and children’s advocate Levi Williams says, “I think it’s unconscionable to put a 12-year-old child in adult prison.”

Put so simply and in such stark terms, the complexity evaporates, and what’s left is media sensationalism and  a tough-on-crime ideology that’s encroaching on a child’s rights. This case is posing a challenge for Florida attorneys and judges and legislators not because it’s a difficult one to sort out, heart-wrenching though it may be. It’s a “hard case,” as Mears describes it, because the state allows for someone as young as 12 even to be considered an adult in the eyes of the law. If the line were drawn clearly, as it should be–that is, if it were impossible even to debate whether to try a boy this young as an adult and thus allow him to be locked up for life–there would, naturally, be no need for so much hand-wringing. Drawing that line is not simply the right thing to do; it would also save people a lot of time and energy and money and ink.

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