Sunday, February 13, 2011

Prevention of the unimaginable

Two-year old Emily was sexually assaulted and then killed in 2006 by her day-care provider's 13 year-old son. To try to put ourselves in the shoes of her parents, Lynne and Travis Johnson, is unimaginable. There just aren't words. But the two of them have taken the courageous stance of trying to do something about this so that no other parent ever has to experience the unimaginable.

For the last 5 years, they have worked with the Minnesota Legislature to pass what has become known as "Emily's Law." This year's version received a hearing last Thursday by the public safety committee. The issue the bill attempts to address is that the 13 year-old who committed the crime was tried in juvenile court and the Johnsons felt the sentence was too lenient. Current law in Minnesota is that, in order to be tried as an adult, the juvenile must be at least 14 years of age. One aspect of the bill would allow children as young as 10 to be tried as an adult for a "violent juvenile offense."

There has been a debate going on in this country for the last decade about whether or not juveniles should be tried as adults. It is important to look at the research developing around this issue to determine whether or not it is an effective policy.

But the real dilemma seems to be - not what can we do after a horrific crime like this has been committed - but what can we do to prevent it from happening in the first place. We need to ask ourselves why a 13 year-old would sexually assault and then kill a 2 year-old. Were there no warning signs that this young man was in trouble? And if so, could something have been done to intervene with him prior to this horrific act?

In 2003, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) took up these issues in a series that looked at the prevalence and risk factors associated with what they called "child delinquency." One report titled Prevalence and Development of Child Delinquency found that child delinquents between the ages of 7 and 12 have a two- to threefold greater risk of becoming serious, violent, and chronic offenders. Another study titled Risk and Protective Factors of Child Delinquency provides information that helps us identify and develop effective intervention strategies for these children.

In the case of Emily's Law, the House public safety committee decided this week to not act on the bill, but members indicated a desire to do further study of the juvenile justice system for possible changes. I hope they review the kind of information on this provided by OJJDP and focus on preventing the unimaginable from ever happening to another Emily.

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