A Kid Even the Prosecutor Felt Uneasy About Putting in Prison

Minors who are incarcerated today will walk among us as adults. Shouldn't we take better care of them, for their sake and ours?
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Joseph Hall, a ten-year-old, fired a .357 magnum into the skull of his sleeping father, a neo-Nazi. He said he was afraid that his dad might kill him along with his step mother. A judge found him guilty of murder and sent him to juvenile hall at age 12. He'll get out in 10 years or so. A long article on the case by Amy Wallace does an excellent job complicating the summary version above, in part by detailing the boy's history of violent behavior toward others, uncontrollable outbursts, and understanding that he was doing wrong.  She also spoke with the man who worked to convict him, Riverside County Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael Soccio, who had never tried a child before in his 23 years as a prosecutor:

When he first got the case, he'd taken a beating online from people who said to try Joseph was to blame the victim. When a few of these people called Soccio's office, he recalls, "I said, 'Look, if you'd like, I'll see if the Court can release him to your custody tonight.' I said, 'I don't think you ought to sleep too soundly, and don't piss him off. But if you really think everything's okay, here, take him.'"

Soccio's comments went to the heart of the trouble with Joseph. He'd endured awfulness that no child should. But despite that, and because of it, it was naïve to think he had emerged unscathed. But this case wasn't really about who to blame. It was about what to do. What to do with Joseph. 

Later in the article, that question came up again:

This fact loomed in the minds of everyone involved in the case: Wherever Joseph would spend the next 10 years—A prison? A psychiatric hospital? Some sort of facility designed to teach the coping skills that most of us take for granted?—would determine the kind of man he would be when he once again walked free. I thought of how Soccio had responded to his critics, offering to let them take Joseph home for the night. In a sense, it would only be a matter of time before that actually came to pass: in 2024, if not sooner, Joseph would be living among us once again.

Implicit in this talk about what Joseph will be like after 10 years in the system is the utter lack of confidence most of us have in that system. The common portrayal of juvenile detention on television and movies is a hell hole. As the boy's attorney put it, "You put that kid in the DJJ, you may be creating a serial killer."

Is that just public defender spin? 

Actually, what grabbed me most in the story is what the prosecutor had to say about juvenile detention. After the guilty verdict, he asked the judge special permission "to do something he's never done after winning a case," Wallace reports. "Reassure the perp that it wasn't personal." Here's what the prosecutor said: 

I told him I didn't want him to think I didn't like him. I wanted him to know that if he ever wanted anything from me, if I could help him, I would. And I also told him, 'You're going to be in some places now that people are going to want you to be tough, and you've got to try to resist the worst part of being tough.' I mean, he does have to hold his own. But depending on where the courts puts him, he's either going to be a predator or prey.

The prosecutor sounds like a good man. 

What's awful is that our system of juvenile justice is so unspeakably awful that even prosecutors acknowledge the kids going into it basically have two choices: be predator, or be prey. What kind of society knowingly consigns children to that sort of environment? 

A shortsighted one.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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