Slender Man and the problem of juvenile justice

When children commit or try to commit murder, they must know it is wrong. Does that make them adults? Then why not let them buy guns and booze and let them drive?


WASHINGTON, Aug. 11, 2015 — A Wisconsin judge ruled on Monday that two girls accused of stabbing a classmate as a sacrifice to “Slender Man,” a fictional horror character, will be tried as adults. The girls, currently 13, were 12 years old in 2014, when they stabbed their friend 19 times.

Their crime was cold-blooded and brutal. According to the criminal complaint, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier planned the stabbing for months. They invited their friend Payton Leutner to a sleepover and afterwards lured her into the woods and attacked her with the knife. They then fled and were picked up by police as they walked toward Nicolet National Forest, where they say they planned to serve the Slender Man.

A passerby found Leutner, who survived the attack.

Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Bohren ruled Monday that Geyser and Weier would remain in the adult system, where they are charged with first-degree attempted homicide. Under Wisconsin law, anyone 10 or older charged with that crime is automatically considered an adult.

Bohren’s decision to keep the girls in the adult system raises questions about the distinction between juveniles and adults in the criminal justice system. The first is whether there is in fact any difference between juveniles and adults.

Bohren said in his decision that it would “unduly depreciate the offense” if the girls were tried as juveniles. If they were tried as juveniles, they’d be released when they turned 18. Many people insist that five years of imprisonment is far too lenient for a premeditated crime as heinous as the two girls committed and that their punishment must be extended far beyond that.

But in fact, the reason that juveniles are treated differently than adults isn’t because we believe that adults commit more vicious crimes that demand harsher penalties, but because we believe juveniles are different from adults. They may understand the difference between right and wrong, but they haven’t yet developed the impulse control of adults. They haven’t yet learned to think critically, to examine consequences carefully, to think of others over themselves, to develop empathy.

Those things all come with maturity; they are the hallmarks of an adult. For that reason we don’t allow 10-year-olds to drive cars, buy alcohol or cigarettes, to sign contracts or to buy guns.

If we truly believed that girls like Geyser and Weier could make adult decisions, we’d hand them the car keys and the credit card and tell them to come home at a reasonable hour. We wouldn’t call the police when their parents left them in the park alone. If 12-year-old Dolores wanted to have sex with Humbert Humbert, we wouldn’t blame him for obliging her.

We’d let her keep a gun in her purse to protect herself if Humbert got too fresh.

Knowing right from wrong isn’t the same thing as wisdom, experience, judgment and maturity. Adolescents might know right from wrong, but they bring that knowledge to bear on shaky and defective models of the world, models resting on dreams and delusions as much as on reality.

To try children as adults when the crimes are heinous is a sort of picking-and-choosing. It satisfies both the practical need to recognize that children are different, and the emotional need to punish them when we want to. To decide that they’ll be treated as adults for this crime but not for that one, or in this setting but not in that one, is emotionally satisfying, but it serves neither the demands of fairness nor of justice.

Either children deal with matters of right and wrong like adults, in which case they should be treated like adults in the criminal justice system, or they deal with them differently, in which case they should be treated differently. The nature of the crime doesn’t change that.

The cutoff between juvenile and adult at 18 is arbitrary, but much less arbitrary than deciding here to treat a 16-year-old like a child, and there to treat a 12-year-old like an adult. That line has at least the virtue of clarity. The alternative is ad hoc.

The purpose of custodial care in the juvenile system is, in principle, to rehabilitate. In the adult system the purpose is primarily to punish. It would be emotionally satisfying to see the girls in this case punished. Had their victim died, it would be emotionally satisfying to see them fry. Five, 10, 12 or 40 – little fish fry as well as big ones.

But any parent knows that children are much more likely to change over a period of five years than an adult is over a period of 20. The 10-year-old who seems well on the path to being a thug turns into a scholar, a lady, a gentleman – an adult. The child who commits a terrible crime deserves a terrible punishment, but the child is still a child, however much we want her to burn, and her punishment should be a punishment designed for children, not adults.

If they are convicted, Geyser and Weier could spend 65 years in prison, a very adult punishment. Judge Bohren suggested that the reason he wants them tried as adults is that they can get the care they need past the age of 18; Geyser has been diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia, a condition that will require medical care for the rest of her life. The odds of anyone getting good mental health care and rehabilitation in the adult prison system seem remote, however.

America’s juvenile justice system is as broken as the adult version. Which system a child should be in, though, should not depend on the crime. That makes the juvenile system not just broken, but a fraud.

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