OP-ED: It’s Time to Re-Wire Some Adults

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Teske-10-771x578crop2The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a large knife. He turns to a teenage boy standing nearby. The boy's eyes get big and the man says to him, "I carry this with me everywhere I go."

The boy smiles as the man looks around at the small crowd looking on and with a grin exclaims, "I guess I should have gone to jail for every time I drove through a school zone with this knife in my pocket."

After the laughter subsides, the man turned to me and asked, "Judge, do you think this is a good bill?"

With excitement I replied, "Yes it is, Governor!"

He nodded in agreement, picked up the pen, and with several strokes the bill became law. No longer will students suffer the trauma of jail or the risk of prison for mere possession of a knife on school campus where there is no intent to harm.

The year was 2010. The governor was Sonny Perdue. The boy was 14. He was arrested for possession of a knife on school campus—a fishing knife.

He forgot to take the knife out of his pocket over the weekend. He discovered it after arriving to school. He voluntarily turned it over to school officials. With robotic reaction and processing like artificial intelligence, the boy was arrested.

The intent of the new law was to bring common sense to the zero tolerance approach by sending a message to school administrators that students who make mistakes are no longer subject to harsh criminal penalties—they are not a threat! The intent was to infuse common sense—a gift absent in artificial intelligence.

Or so we thought until the recent arrests of two high school students in an Atlanta suburb for having a knife in their car parked in the school lot--fishing knives in a tackle box and an Emergency Medical Technician knife in case of an accident.

We have made significant strides in our computer technology to advance artificial intelligence—but is it possible to infuse artificial common sense into decision-making where it is noticeably absent among the human species—even where they hold doctorates in education?

The answer is no. I regret to inform you that it will take a law that will draw a brighter line to assist the less gifted among us.

Maybe we can call this new law the “Bless Your Heart” Act—a phrase of Southern social grace used by my ancestors meaning “I like you, but you’re too stupid to figure this out!”

I am not really sure what this new law should look like, but it’s time we engage all the stakeholders to figure it out. I have some unrefined ideas that can start this conversation.

It begins with the foundation that juvenile justice targets the kids who scare us—not those that make us mad. Not every kid who commits a criminal act is a delinquent kid. Except those who were boring teenagers, I ask how many committed a delinquent act as a teenager regardless of how minor the infraction?

Medical science has proven what the behavioral sciences have been saying for generations—kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things. We must be very careful how we respond to them because they are still under neurological construction. We want our kids to be hard-wired in good places and around pro-social people. Handcuffs, the back seat of police cars, intake booking and for too many, jail cells, are not good places—especially involving misdemeanor acts arising out of those difficult years of teenage adjustment complicated by neurological misfires.

In those places around the country that enjoy the “Tough on Kids” deterrence theory, many of these kids find themselves in the best training grounds for delinquency—detention facilities.

The “Bless Your Heart” Act would artificially help the “Stupids” on this one by mandating common sense.

This law requires an understanding of the legal maxim mens rea—criminal intent. There must be some level of intent that accompanies the actus reus—guilty act. Generally over the years, our criminal justice systems have developed levels of intent including negligence, recklessness, knowingly and purposefully.

We have also developed defenses in varying degrees that either excuse, justify or explain the guilty act. The latter is the foundation of the Act—is the guilty mind of a teenager diminished by his or her neurological wiring involving misdemeanor acts characterized as “juvenile?”

If so, it begs this question--should minor offenses that occur on school campus be barred from prosecution unless there exists a pattern of conduct showing the student to be a delinquent child?

The only way to stop this madness of stupidity among some adult professionals having difficulty navigating a zero tolerance system with no intelligence is to change the system. This change requires a general prohibition with reasonable exceptions that distinguishes those kids who do stupid things from those who are delinquent.

The U.S. Supreme Court has relied heavily on the neurological wiring of adolescents to prohibit the execution of juveniles and life without parole sentences involving homicide. Can medical science also help us bring common sense to the front door of juvenile justice?

At least many kids have an explanation for their stupidity—they are still being hard-wired. For some adults and systems—it will take re-wiring!

4 thoughts on “OP-ED: It’s Time to Re-Wire Some Adults

  1. I hope so. I am currently teaching in the Criminology and Criminal Justice department at Georgia Southern and I try to instill in my students the idea that when they get into these positions, they should make decisions based on the circumstances of the case and not on blanket policies that can in no way predict every possible scenario.

    • We are fortunate to have you as a professor helping our future criminal justice professionals to evaluate on a case by case basis and avoid the cookie cutter approach. Thank you for what you do and HOW you do it.

  2. One of my probationers discovered one day at school that he had put his adderall in his pocket instead of taking it that morning. He knew that he could not get in trouble so he did what seemed right to him; he took it to his school resource officer to ask what he should do. When he showed the drug to the school resource officer, he was promptly expelled. The school wanted me to file a violation of probation for having a controlled substance at school. I refused since all agreed that he had no intent to distribute, but they sent him to an alternative school anyway. My judge would have thrown it out anyway and told the school to stop wasting her time.

    • Thanks Chris for sharing! The more of us who are working in the juvenile justice system like you and your judge (and there are plenty) who push back and speak up like you just did—maybe, just maybe, they will begin to figure out that we will not tolerate their stupidity in our system!