Could the juvenile suspects in the Tennessee wildfires be tried as adults?

Juveniles make up a high proportion of arson arrests. In Tennessee, prosecutors could throw the book at two suspects accused of starting a fire that ended up killing 14 people.

Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean/AP
Allan Rivera holds onto his son Nathan Rivera, 23 months old, as he looks at the remains of their home for the first time on Dec. 5, 2016, in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Authorities in Tennessee say two juveniles have been charged with aggravated arson in connection with the wildfires that roared through the eastern part of the state last week, killing 14 people, injuring almost 150, and damaging some 1,700 buildings.

The juveniles, whose names have not been released, are alleged to have started a fire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that eventually spread down to the city of Gatlinburg, forcing the evacuation of more than 14,000 residents, according to CBS.

At a press conference where the charges were announced on Wednesday, local district attorney James Dunn raised the prospect of trying the suspects as adults, adding that additional charges were being considered. No details about the suspects themselves have been released.

“I understand that you have a lot of questions,” Mr. Dunn told reporters, according to the Associated Press. “However, the law does not allow for the disclosure of additional information at this time.” 

Like many juvenile arson cases that claim victims and cause mass property damage, the case seems to test the limits of support for criminal-justice policies for minors that emphasize treatment over punishment, at a time when harsh “tough-on-crime” measures are falling into disfavor for both adults and minors.

Since the 1990s, juveniles have generally made up anywhere from 40 percent to more than half of arson arrests – higher, proportionally, than for any other crime, according to the Department of Homeland Security. And in the 1990s, when courts were under pressure to treat juvenile offenders as adults, sentencing could be unsettling for arson cases involving vastly greater destruction than the minors ever intended. 

A 1997 report from the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention pointed to a 1996 case in which a 14-year-old girl was convicted of reckless homicide and arson that landed her in a prison for adults.

“Combined with increasing pressure to treat serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offenders as adults, juvenile involvement in arson raises some troubling issues for the juvenile justice system,” noted the report.

In the past decade, states have rolled back policies that encouraged courts to try minors – especially adolescents – as adults.

“While tough-on-crime laws from the 1980s and ’90s automatically sent many 16- and 17-year-old defendants to adult courts for trial, that trend has been halted and is now being reversed,” wrote The Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board in a 2011 commentary.

“What’s pushing these states is the realization that minors don’t think like adults, and that treating them as such is counterproductive,” the editorial stated. 

But in cases like the one in Tennessee, the public often favors harsher measures, and prosecutors themselves may be tempted to throw the book at minors.

Age shouldn’t matter on something like this,” said Katerina Mills, a Gatlinburg resident who had evacuated to a shelter, in an interview with The Washington Post. “There were so many lives lost in this fire, due to this fire, and due to them being inconsiderate.

“I would love to see them tried as adults,” she added.

If convicted of the aggravated assault charges, the suspects could face up to 60 years in prison and up to $50,000 in fines, according to the AP.

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