One day after a 9-year-old was arraigned on murder charges, a juvenile justice advocate on Tuesday questioned the Woodford County prosecutor’s decision to try and hold the boy criminally responsible for his alleged actions.
The boy is charged with five counts of first-degree murder and three counts of arson connected with an April 6 fire at a mobile home in Goodfield. Five people were killed, including three young children. Authorities say it was intentionally set.
The unusual case has attracted national media attention, including at Monday’s arraignment in a Eureka courtroom. The boy struggled to understand the charges against him; the judge had to explain several criminal law terms in plain English.
The tragic case is made even more shocking because prosecutors charged him with murder, said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Evanston-based Juvenile Justice Initiative.
“It’s out of line to charge a child so young on the criminal side of the juvenile court,” Clarke said. “It’s completely out of line with other developed countries and the world consensus on what’s fundamentally fair for children. This is unheard of and shocking.”
Clarke said a more reasonable approach would’ve been to put the boy on the child-welfare track within the juvenile justice system, not the delinquency (or criminal) side.
“It entails everything that the other side has. It just doesn’t have the punishment. It doesn’t have the option of probation or detention. But it has all of the resources,” she said.
Clarke said Woodford County State’s Attorney Greg Minger had the discretion to do that but chose not to. Instead, the boy will move through criminal proceedings.
“It’s stigmatizing and traumatic as well as being unnecessary,” Clarke said. “It gets in the way of getting the kind of services and resources that this child and the family need in order to begin to even think about some form of healing and moving on.”
This month when charges were filed, Minger told the Peoria Journal-Star it was a “heavy decision” but “I just think it needs to be done at this point, for finality.”
If convicted, Minger noted that the maximum penalty the child could face is probation. Mandated psychological treatment and counseling would also be likely.
The boy’s mother recently told CBS News and the Chicago Tribune that her son had been diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) was involved in the boy's well-being at least 14 times, WCBU reported Tuesday.
Minger spoke briefly with reporters after Monday’s arraignment and said he still felt the charges were appropriate.
“Everything we’re trying to do is in the best interest of the child,” said Minger, who has been state’s attorney since 2011.
Clarke said a recent United Nations study recommended that 14 be the minimum age for prosecution. There is some movement in Springfield to better align state law with that standard, Clarke said. Illinois, after all, was home to the world’s first juvenile court, in Cook County, she said.
“There’s a reason we don’t let children under the age of 16 drive cars. We just raised the age of tobacco to 21. There’s a reason that we set these higher age limits, and it’s because children’s brains aren’t fully developed yet,” Clarke said. “We just need to recognize this in terms of culpability as well as allowing them privileges of adulthood.”
Because of his age, the boy is not in custody. He’s in the care of his grandparents. He's due back in court Nov. 22.