In the continuing madness out of Steubenville, Walter Madison, the attorney for Ma’lik Richmond, is appealing the “You’re so obviously guilty it’s painful” verdict in the rape of a 16-year-old girl. Why? Because he believes that at 16, Ma’lik’s brain isn’t fully developed and to be put on a lifetime sex offender registry is unjust.
Well, there are some who would agree that Ma’lik’s brain isn’t fully developed, and not just because he thought raping a girl and tweeting about it was somehow a good idea. Some claim that the human brain isn’t fully mature until 25, while others (probably more authoritative) show that it’s more complicated than that.
Whatever way the science leans, what Madison is saying is actually commonly accepted knowledge: Young people don’t work the same way as old people. This is why we have age of consent laws. This is why we have juvenile courts. This is why punishments for juveniles are so much more lenient and why juvenile records often aren’t permanent. We hope that a couple of years in a correctional facility will straighten out whatever their parents did to fuck them up, and they should be able to fix themselves and move on with their lives. It’s one thing when an adult who should know better commits a crime—clearly their lives deserve to be ruined. But a kid is different.
It’s obvious, due to the fact that the two players were tried as juveniles rather than as adults, that someone thinks that they are, in many ways, still children. So why should a child have a permanent black mark on his record that will remain for the rest of his life? It would remove any chance he has of a job and might even put him on the path of being one of the 61% of felons who go on to repeat their crimes or others. More importantly, why try him as a juvenile if you plan to give him a sentence worthy of an adult?
This is the point where I pause and ask everyone to take a deep breath and attempt to be impartial. Yes, what Richmond did was heinous, despicable, and in every way evil. Perhaps he should have been tried as an adult. Perhaps the prevalent rape culture and athlete worship in our society is what caused him to not have been tried as an adult.
But the fact is that he wasn’t tried as an adult.
It smacks in the face of due process that a single judge can hand down a sentence to a child that, for the rest of the country, would have been decided by a jury. For sentences that severe, no matter how justly deserved they may be, we have juries of our peers. We have an adversarial system. We have protections. Richmond only got watered-down protections. With watered down protections you get watered down sentences—that’s the way juvenile court works, but that’s not what they got here.
I have no doubt that, if the Steubenville rapists had been tried as adults, they would have been found just as insanely incredibly guilty, and they would have rightly been put on the sex offender registry. I will even go so far as to say that I believe they should have been tried as adults. However, we made the determination that they were children, and it violates that process to hand out an adult’s punishment to someone we have considered a child.