Justice for Nathaniel?

The case of Nathaniel Abraham was yet another instance of youthful crime that riveted national attention. But in this instance it wasn't the severity of the crime, which was bad enough, but the age of the perpetrator and how the criminal-justice system dealt with him that made news.

Abraham was 11 years old three years ago when he killed a man. The victim, a stranger, happened to walk out of a store in Pontiac, Mich., at the same moment Abraham was playing with a stolen rifle in the woods some 200 feet away. The boy's attorney argued the shooting was unintentional. But the youth had bragged to friends that he had killed someone. The jury found him guilty of murder. The trial was held in adult court, as the prosecution had requested. The prosecutors also asked for a sentence of confinement in a juvenile detention center until age 21, at which time an assessment would be made of his rehabilitation, with the likelihood of further time in an adult prison.

Judge Eugene Arthur Moore instead sentenced the 14-year-old to seven years in juvenile detention, period. Moreover, he made a passionate appeal to move away from the national trend of treating underage offenders as adults. The need, he said, was to rehabilitate young offenders and thus prevent the creation of another generation of adult lawbreakers.

The get-tough-on-crime advocates say adult crimes should bring adult penalties and that a juvenile-justice system designed to separate the young from older criminals cannot rehabilitate today's often more violent youth.

Judge Moore seemed to think there is no alternative but to use the juvenile-justice system. He has a point, and if the system is failing to turn around youngsters like Nathaniel Abraham, it needs careful rethinking - not junking in favor of a one-system-for-all approach.

There's nothing simple about this task. Redirecting even a young life that's veered toward violence can be hard work. Judge Moore should be credited with making us turn, a bit, from the "lock 'em up" approach toward a more demanding, but potentially much more effective solution.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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