Social Justice Café Recap: Juvenile Justice and Children’s Rights

By Caileigh Moose

Source: Yahoo Images

On Wednesday, January 18, 2023, the UAB Institute for Human Rights facilitated a discussion on the issues of juvenile justice and children’s rights. This conversation was led by Dr. Stacy Moak, a member of the UAB Political Science and Public Administration department, who also has a decade of previous experience as a member of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas Little Rock.

The focal point of this discussion concerned the recent incident of gun violence in Newport News, VA, where a local first grader, just six years old, shot his teacher at Richneck Elementary School. After outlining the basic information on the situation, Dr. Moak brought up two broader questions that would become the basis for most of the discussion: how did this happen, and who can be blamed for this incident?

The conversation initially turned towards the issue of how a gun could have ended up in a six-year-old’s hands in the first place. Several participants questioned how a child this young was allowed out of their family home, into their car seat, and stepped into a classroom with a gun in their backpack. In response, Dr. Moak answered that current gun regulation, or the lack thereof, has played a large role. The conversation referenced how the United States has more guns than any other nation in the world, which has been a result of their being ingrained in the American cultural identity. Dr. Moak outlined for the group how the United States lacks major federal safe handling requirements and simple purchase restrictions surrounding firearms, and how those missing safeguards too often mean guns in the hands of minors.

Boy holding a gun.

Source: Yahoo Images

Later, when asked by a participant how we need to specifically change or reconsider gun policies in order to prevent these types of events in the future, Dr. Moak referenced a group called Moms Demand Action, a “grassroots movement fighting for public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence.” Circling back to the tragedy at Richneck Elementary, Dr. Moak discussed the existence of several security measures, like backpack checks, at the time of the shooting, and how the district’s current policies failed to prevent the violence. Even when the school was on alert that a gun might have been in the child’s possession, a gun search was conducted, and nothing was found. One participant mentioned how policies and processes designed to stop these tragedies aren’t working effectively, as seen in the Virginia incident, where the safety inspection of a backpack proved ineffective when it failed to catch a hidden weapon. Another discussion contributor argued that the government’s efforts thus far to protect our children haven’t been enough. Referencing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a policy centered around the protection of children around the globe, as an example, they pointed out that the U.S. is the only country that hasn’t ratified the convention, even now, 33 years since its introduction.

At the end of the day, what does justice look like in this situation?

In first examining the legal culpability of the child, Dr. Moak reasoned that “if we don’t expect rational decisions from them in other aspects of life, we can’t put the weight of their decisions on them when it comes to the justice system.” Although at 6, the defendant in question is not old enough to face detention in Virginia, Dr. Moak reminded the group that numerous other children would fall victim to this system. Depending on the state, children as young as 8 can not only be sent to juvenile prison but be detained in an adult prison or even sentenced as adults themselves. The fact that a child is 11 instead of 6, she argued, shouldn’t make such a drastic difference. In fact, the brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid to late 20s, so trying to judge the character and motive of a human being who is still learning to tie their shoes is questionable. Though, when it comes to minors in general, the question of intent and the capacity to comprehend the severity and the consequences of their actions in a trial setting remains difficult to judge. Unfortunately, Dr. Moak revealed that the current juvenile justice system does little to acknowledge this. Despite her point that “the main right that children are entitled to is our protection,” constitutionally, the only protection they’ve received is an exemption from the death penalty and life without parole. Dr. Moak brought up that Alabama, for example, has only granted parole to a minuscule number of potential parolees, so most life sentences, at least locally, will remain permanent. In fact, the Alabama Parole Review Board has this year, as of February 14th, only granted parole to less than 3% of total parole applicants. Such policy and behavior are by no means unique, and this favoritism of punishment over rehabilitation, especially for children, Dr. Moak worried, will lead to troubling consequences.

Person in prison cell.

Source: Yahoo Images

However, in this case, the only potential avenues of intervention Dr. Moak outlined were Social Services and the child welfare system, as in situations like these, “we’re not treating the six-year-old, we are treating the entire family.” This prompted a discussion of the accountability of parents, with several contributors asking about their potential consequences. One participant asked whether the parents could be obligated to attend some sort of parental or gun safety training as a result of the shooting. On the subject of legal parental responsibility, though, Dr. Moak said there was little to be done, as “juvenile court has no jurisdiction over parents or other adults” as a body designed to strictly deal with youth justice. To mandate any parental action, an adult court would need to be involved.

Finally, Dr. Moak mentioned that a child’s moral compass and rationalization for their actions stem from what they observe around them, whether that be from their parents or their society. One contributor added that American cultural traditions of violence and outright brutality in the face of disagreement seem to have fostered children who aren’t well-versed in conflict resolution. Hollywood was used as an example of this cultural upbringing, producing action movie after action movie that places force as the primary solution behind the dispute, showing them a world where revered heroes act first and talk later. Another participant captured this idea of normalized societal brutality by reminding the group that “we control the storytelling,” and the messages of the stories that will influence the future.

What can we do to remedy some of the issues brought up in this discussion?

Gun regulation and juvenile justice reforms are notoriously difficult to implement, but some steps can be taken to address some of the more specific issues. For one, we can enact and enforce a moderate national gun regulation policy with a targeted focus on the safe storage and possession of firearms. As a member of society, you can contact your local representatives and elected officials to convey your support for such regulation or donate to causes, like Moms Demand Action, to support their missions. In the realm of youth rights, we can urge our lawmakers to ratify the long overdue UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, while more broadly changing the standard medium of conflict resolution from violence to peace.

Thank you to Dr. Stacy Moak and to everyone who joined or participated in this important and thoughtful discussion! To see more upcoming events like this hosted by the Institute for Human Rights at UAB, please visit our events page here.