by Eric Zorn
January 28, 1996
Most of you are lucky enough that the question of what to do with the boys who killed 5-year-old Eric Morse by dropping him out a 14th-story window of a Chicago Housing Authority high-rise is an intellectual exercise.
You do not know their names. You have never seen their faces. You have never heard their piping little voices. You have never experienced their brutal rage. And, with any luck at all, you never will.
When they are released, they will probably return to the squalid South Side where they grew up, after a fashion, and those who live at some distance will probably not encounter them.
Others will, however, and the obvious imperative for the justice system now weighing this case is to do what makes it the least likely that the boys, now 12 and 13, will someday claim more victims.
Executing them would do the trick. But unfortunately for all of you whom I heard last week suggesting that the boys be put to death, perhaps via ghastly medical experiments, our culture hasn’t executed offenders so young since the Middle Ages. Seems some wimpy lawmakers and softhearted citizens got it into their heads children are not just small adults with otherwise fully formed senses of right and wrong, powers of self-control and moral capacities, and therefore the law should treat them differently.
In fact, Cook County was the birthplace of the juvenile court system, inspired in 1899 by the bleeding-heart idea that young criminals could and should be treated and reformed into law-abiding adults instead of simply punished. The juvenile court, overseen by social counselors, studied the relationship between environment and behavior and prescribed custom treatment plans.
“In the mission statements you see many references to addressing what the child needs, not what he’s done,” said Jeffrey Butts, senior research associate at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. “But in reality, that’s hardly true at all anymore. Now we see much more emphasis on locking up, incapacitating, punishing.”
The need for incapacitation is pressing. “Delinquent,” the quaint synonym for guilty still employed in juvenile court, doesn’t begin to reflect the enormity and viciousness of the crimes perpetrated by some of today’s young criminals, qualities brought home to the nation by the senseless murder of Eric Morse.
As Cook County Juvenile Court Judge Carol Kelly heard testimony last week about the appropriate disposition of Eric’s killers, there seemed to be general agreement that protecting innocent people from these boys–at least until they turn 21 and must, by law, be released from state care–is a high priority.
Sticking them into gang-plagued juvenile prisons, already operating at 146 percent of capacity, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, would both accomplish this and afford them the greatest portion of suffering. In that sense, it would come as close as the law allows to avenging the unavengable death of their innocent victim.
But the price of such retribution is an increased danger that they will emerge from “the monster factory,” a nickname some criminologists have given prison, more predatory and violent than they are now. The ultimate cost of writing off lives so young, in this case and many others, may be more innocent victims–a lot to pay for the satisfaction of harsh punishment.
On average, Butts said, programs of intensive psychological treatment–often in residential-style facilities that critics deride as “country clubs”–have much better rehabilitation records than juvenile facilities where the primary purpose is incarceration. Judge Kelly is thought to be considering a compromise placement in a small, separate state prison unit that provides somewhat more frequent therapy than other juvenile prisons.
“Try to imagine what you would want done if your own child had done something horrendous,” Butts said. “Would you want the state to throw his life away, put him in a cement-block room for 10 years? No. You’d want as much counseling, treatment, family therapy and vocational therapy as you could get. But it’s easy to be flip when it’s someone else’s kids.”
The two killers are someone else’s kids and, even if they are not salvaged, likely someone else’s problem too. But the dilemma they so starkly symbolize–what to do with youths who’ve gone terribly wrong–belongs to all of us.