To residents living in Metro Detroit, the violence that plagues the region has become almost routine, but when Antoine Morris stabbed and killed his mother after an argument on Jan. 24, 2002, the killing sent shockwaves not only through Michigan, but the nation as well. It was not just the nature of the killing that caught the attention of so many. What was so shocking was the prospect of trying Morris for the crime, because at the time of the murder, he was only 13 years old.
As children engage in violent acts, society will inevitably struggle with how to punish youth guilty of the most heinous acts. One widely-publicized example was the trial of Nathaniel Abraham, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced to juvenile detention. In light of Abraham’s case and others like it, there has been widespread debate on whether or not such criminals should be tried as adults. Wayne County Circuit Judge Ulysses Boykin ruled Friday that Antoine is competent to stand trial in the killing of his mother, Janice Williams.
There are growing rumblings in Lansing and across the state that Morris should be tried as an adult for his crimes – an idea that is both morally repugnant and contrary to our values as a society. A 13-year-old child knows little about life, death and punishment. The system seeks lesser, more rehabilitative punishments for our youngest criminals because they have not had the time to mature and understand the laws that govern our society. For all intents and purposes, children like Morris are irrational actors; Morris certainly knew what he was doing was wrong, but it is doubtful he could have had any idea of how serious his actions were. Regardless of malice or forethought, Morris had no way of knowing the consequences of his actions would have on himself or his family.
Worse, the decision to strengthen the punishments for juvenile offenders is reactionary. It takes no consideration to the practical benefits of rehabilitation, instead equating being “tough on crime” with harsh and potentially cruel sentences. It is a decision borne not out of concern, but out of a desire to reap a political benefit, which in this case translates to the possible life-long imprisonment of a child.
For Antoine Morris, the opportunity to receive the guidance he needs could taken away from him by legislators more interested in a political score than in the well being of a child worthy of rehabilitation. His guilt is not in question, but there is still hope for individuals like Abraham. Their crimes are the result of a society that has given up on so many of its children. The answer lies not in outrage and punishment, but in patience and rehabilitation. These provide little consolation to the family of the victim, but neither will the incarceration of a boy too young to understand his role in society and the consequence of his deed.