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Young Criminals: Difficult Questions, Difficult Answers


Much has been written recently concerning the sentencing of three youths to life without parole in what has become known as the Dunbar debate. The crime was a particularly heinous one: in a South Florida housing project, a battery of nearly a dozen youths invaded the home of a woman, held her and her son against their will, raped her repeatedly, then sadistically forced her to engage in deviant sexual acts.

Sentencing Judge Krista Marx denounced the trio as “without moral compass”. Seeing no hope of rehabilitation through incarceration, she sentenced them to life without parole; she could not allow society to become victimized again by such vicious acts of inhumanity.

The other side of the argument is that a system that would imprison youths, not yet of majority age, forever, allowing for no hope of rehabilitation, is a system that fails to serve the better interests of society and the felon alike.

Both sides are persuasive, because neither side is wrong. What is wrong is the limitation of options that comprise the two sides of the argument. There is a third choice, one that for some reason has eluded a society that finds itself hamstrung by a growing percentage of its individuals who behave outside the legal and psychological norms established by that society.

The truth is that after the third major felonious assault in the last fifteen years, our community still knows nothing about why it is that one person will ripen into a sadistic rapist while his neighbor grows up to become a successful and productive citizen. We don’t know because we haven’t thought to ask the question, even when the answer may lie buried deep within the very same miscreant we are charged with housing for the rest of his days. Is it possible that the answer to what causes monstrous acts like these may lay hidden, deep within the minds of the guilty? Is it possible that finding such a cause could lead to an effective therapy?

Let us suppose that the three defendants in this case, who so callously tore apart the very fabric of society, were given another option, one which they would be free to choose as an opportunity to pay a portion of the price they owe society for their crimes. What if this choice, if taken, would represent a chance for society to recover its investment in the incarceration of the defendants (no small piece of change, by the way)? What if these individuals were to grant access to what went wrong with them; to what lies in their minds?

As a neurophysiologist who has been involved with peering into healthy minds under the umbrella of medical research, I can vouch for the potentially valuable information that might be unearthed through the application of available, non-invasive investigative tools – tools that have absolutely no deleterious effect on the subject. What might a PET scan (a radiological tool) reveal about the failure of the emotional center of the brain to react to what would be universally accepted as a repugnant stimulus? What would recording the electrical responses to stimuli in the brain illustrate about thought, action, judgment and decisions? Would this information suggest potential therapies that might be employed to intervene with children and avoid the development of youth who could allow themselves to commit these heinous crimes?

Sadly, we don’t know the answers to questions like these because we haven’t incorporated the opportunity to ask and analyze them into the administration of criminal justice. One must wonder: could the answers serve to avoid these outrageous crimes committed in Dunbar Village?

More importantly, does our continued failure to initiate such inquiries virtually guarantee that crimes such as those at Dunbar will be repeated, and other unfortunate victims will suffer?

Is it better for society to lock young criminals away without hope, or should we allow some consideration in exchange for knowledge that might prevent more victims? Is it unfair or inhumane to offer the participation in scientific study in exchange for the reconsideration of a life sentence? In the absence of this research, how can society hope to cure or treat a mental defect that it otherwise cannot understand?

Is a life sentence without the possibility of parole a sufficient punishment in cases such as these monstrous acts in Dunbar Village? Is there more society should require? One could make a strong argument that the only currency such offenders could offer to repay their debt to society is the value of access to the very thinking processes that created the crimes they committed, to find causes and treatments that could prevent such crimes from happening in the future.

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Posted By: Bud Wilder