WASHINGTON, January 1, 2017 — The state of Missouri has passed a terrible law. Students will return from the holiday break and could face prison time for getting into a fight or even engaging in a minor playground scuffle. That’s because Missouri now classifies a fight between two students that has to be broken up by adults as a felony.
Specifically, students caught fighting can be charged either with a Class E felony, which is defined as an assault in the third degree (possible incarceration of up to four years); or they can be charged with an even more significant offense, which occurs when a student fighting with another who is part of a “special class” can be charged with a Class D felony (up to seven years of incarceration) no matter who started the fight, their grade level or age.
Missouri legislators erroneously believe that children will not participate in fighting if they know they will be punished. The new law is about deterrence, which, overwhelmingly across social and scientific studies alike, has been shown to be entirely ineffective when applied to children, even those who are in their mid- and late-teens. Even in the face of this, a Missouri police officer recently told a reporter on local station KFVS that he hoped the law would make students “think twice” about fighting.
This new law, critics fear, will only put more students on a path toward involvement with the legal system, long before they have the capacity or ability to “think twice” about the consequence of engaging in a minor scuffle.
According to an overwhelming consensus of neuroscientists, the minds (brain development) of children are not fully formed until they reach at least age of twenty. A February 2015 article in Mental Health Daily notes that at age 18, the brain is roughly halfway through its entire stage of development.
In light of this fact alone, Missouri’s new law is outrageously wrong and contradicts every sound bit of knowledge concerning juvenile development and delinquency prevention. To pass a law based on the theory that it will deter certain behaviors assumes that there is an adult thought process that considers the consequences of an aggressive act. As virtually every parent knows, children rarely consider the consequences of anything.
The Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention issued a report in August 2015 that essentially rejects any notion that deterrence is a motivator for children, rejecting as well the false concept that “kids are adults.” The report concluded that “among serious adolescent offenders” there was “no meaningful reduction in offending or arrests in response to more severe punishment.”
The research network from which these findings come is the same one that was instrumental in ending the death penalty for juveniles as well as other severe adult penalties in 2005.
The seminal finding in these studies:
“The absence of evidence of deterrent effect is of special concern because the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults suggest as well that juveniles will be less susceptible to deterrence.”
Critics of Missouri’s new law are of the opinion that it adds yet another pathway to the “school-to-prison” pipeline, which is the term for
“… the process by which young people are criminalized for their behavior in schools, exposed to law enforcement and the rest of the criminal justice system at an early age, and become more likely to interact with that system down the line.”
Jeffrey Mittman, Executive Director of the Missouri ACLU, says that schools should not be places where police criminalize young people. He points out that students who are suspended, expelled or have even one arrest are much more likely to drop out. Worse, the law disproportionately hits minority students harder, with Missouri schools being particularly notorious for the rate at which they suspend black students. A 2005 UCLA study showed that Missouri was the worst in the nation with regard to the difference in the way it treats white students and black students.
The Mental Health Daily article cited above notes that the last stage of brain development occurs in the prefrontal cortex, meaning that full maturity does not begin to occur until almost age 20. Thus, the functions controlled by the prefrontal cortex, including decision-making and impulse control, are the last to develop. Fighting is typically an impulse-driven activity characterized by an inability to maintain self-control and an inability to avoid impulsive behaviors. Further, the prefrontal cortex controls logical thinking. Neither children nor teens are likely to consider the logical consequences of an action when an impulse to fight presents itself. Further, fighting itself, of course, is not logical, save under extreme circumstances.
The concern about the impulse control “pipeline” is clearly supported by science. Further, while many factors affect brain development, one key factor according to the Mental Health article, is social isolation. Remaining isolated from society – being in prison even for a short time – can have profound effects on personality, mood and the ability to perform in social situations. Those isolated from social contact may experience sub-optimal brain development. The Mental Health piece also observes that establishing positive social contacts is key during this period.
Missouri’s new law is a throwback to an era in the early to mid-1990s, at which time a punitive, “get-tough-on-kids” period was endorsed by what seemed like a national consensus. State legislators across the country passed laws believing that prosecuting juveniles as adults would deter them from committing crimes. These theories have been proven wrong.
A 2015 analysis conducted by the Juvenile Law Center, Ten Strategies to Reduce Juvenile Length of Stay, draws from a review of every state’s laws in this area and features input from preeminent researchers and scholars in the field of juvenile justice. The study begins with the recognition that there are two ways to reduce populations in existing juvenile facilities:
- Reduce admissions.
- Reduce the length of stay.
Missouri must have missed this study.
In a closely related issue, the National Center For Education Statistics provides another clue for Missouri. Literacy is defined as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” With regard to literacy, the National Center notes:
- 85% of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. This means they read at a basic or below basic level.
- While problems with reading often are seen in adulthood, their roots can be traced back to elementary and secondary school years. Studies suggest that two-thirds of students who struggle with reading by fourth grade will run into trouble with the law at some point.
The National Center observes that education often takes a backseat to allegedly more important or pressing social issues. Nevertheless, the stats prove that education is decidedly no less important. Yet closing the education gap is easier said than done. But if literacy rates could be improved, research shows that the end result would be a win-win for youth and the country.
Critics of Missouri’s new “put the kid in jail” law offer that the school system and legislature need to treat student fighting as an education issue, and focus on reforming the systemic over-targeting of minority students. The new law is likely to do just the opposite.
Tell Missouri parents to give their kids an apple for the teacher.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.
Samakow has now also started a small business consulting firm. His new book “Step By Step, Achieve Small Business Success” is available at www.thebusinessanswer.com.