March 19, 2013 • Jerod Gunsberg, Los Angeles Criminal Defense Lawyer
Lots of thoughts on the Steubenville rape case, and frankly I’ve been reticent to share my thoughts as the emotions and wounds are still raw. To my mind, it has been relegated to a topic “not discussed in polite company.” As a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, I’m used to holding my tongue on issues of criminal justice. Unless I know my companions well, nothing brings a dinner party to a grinding halt faster than my view of the world especially when talking about tough topics like pirson reform, domestic violence, and now…Steubenville.
But as someone who cares deeply about the integrity of the juvenile justice system, it is difficult to be quiet.
Thankfully, contemporary cultural philosopher Henry Rollins came to the rescue this morning. In an eloquent, plain-spoken blog post he framed the issues beautifully, especially the issue of punishment:
After reading posts for quite awhile, I thought first about the two young men. I wondered if the years in the facility will “help” them. What, exactly does one “learn” in one of these places? That is to say, after five years locked away, does the idea of assaulting a woman seem like the wrong thing to do, more than if you were incarcerated for one year? Would you be “more sorry” about what you did? Is that possible? Or, would you just be more sorry for yourself about where your actions landed you? At what point do you get “better”, how many years in one of these places does that take?
This is a real problem here in Los Angeles County. The goal of the juvenile justice system is supposed to be “rehabilitation”, but unfortunately the system seems far more interested in “punishment.” Except for a few notable exceptions, juvenile facilities in LA County are preoccupied with teaching kids how to submit to authority, not treating or rehabilitating. Some of you reading think that’s what these kids need and I agree that a structured environment is important, but let’s look a little deeper .
In Los Angeles County when a child is declared a ward of the delinquency court, unless a he or she is allowed to remain “home on probation”, he or she gets sent to one of three places:
- A “probation camp” for a period of 3 to 9 months. This is a “boot camp” type facility that I like to call “county jail with training wheels.”
- A “suitable placement facility” Depending on the child’s home life or any psychological issues, the child is placed in a group home which may or may not have a treatment component. Kids are here for indeterminate period of time. The court can maintain jurisdiction until the age of 21.
- Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). This is state prison for kids. The only kids eligible to be sent here those who are found to have committed serious or violent offenses (strikes under California’s Three Strikes laws) . Kids can be kept there until they are 25.
So if this were Los Angeles County, what would be the appropriate disposition for the Steubenville kids?
What they did to the victim was horrible, period. Something must be done. And let’s assume that the Ohio charges sustained against them were the equivalent of “serious or violent offenses” aka “strikes” under California’s Three Strikes law. Do you send these kids to DJJ until their 25? Is that the answer?
DJJ only houses 750 kids. These are kids whom the court believes has repeatedly engaged in very serious criminal conduct: Drive-by shootings, violent takeover robberies involving firearms, kidnappings for robbery, kids who are deeply entrenched in street gangs, and yes…also minors accused of violent sexual assaults.
But on a gut level, does that really feel like the Steubenville kids? Do you want to warehouse these boys until their 25 with the hardest of hardcore? These kids wouldn’t make it there for a minute. Is this going to rehabilitate them or is this going to be a graduate school for further serious criminal conduct?
So let’s take DJJ off the table. What if the Steubenville boys were sent to a “suitable placement” group home or a short-term probation camp. People would be up in arms and outraged that they got away with a seemingly light punishment. Especially because in California, minors who sustain sex crime charges but are not sent to DJJ are not required to register as offenders nor would this be a qualifying offense towards California’s Sexual violent Predator law. And while I do not believe in of sex offender registration for minors, if there were no registration requirement in this case, the outcry would be 10 times as loud.