If I Had a Hammer

March 27, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve commented before (here, for example) that the American tendency to define problems in moral terms leads us to come up not with solutions but with punishments. I realize that if all you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as though it’s a nail. But surely there must be a variety of approaches available, especially when we need to deal with kids. Yet under policies that go by names like “zero tolerance,” we empty the toolbox of everything else, and we wind up with the Supreme Court deciding whether it’s O.K. for school authorities to strip-search a 13-year-old girl because they think she might be carrying Advil.

Now we have this from yesterday’s New York Times. Investigators in the office of George Skumanick, DA for Wyoming County, PA, found a picture on a girl’s cell phone – a couple of girls age 13 or 14 at a slumber party. The picture shows them from the waist up, and they are wearing bras. One of the girls is Marissa Miller, now fifteen.
Mr. Skumanick said he considered the photo “provocative” enough to tell Marissa and the friend, Grace Kelly, that if they did not attend a 10-hour class dealing with pornography and sexual violence, he was considering filing a charge of sexual abuse of a minor against both girls. If convicted, they could serve time in prison and would probably have to register as sex offenders.

The Times story doesn’t say exactly how the investigators got their hands on this salacious photo. Presumably, a teacher confiscated the phone because a kid was using it in school. Then school officials looked through the stored photos on the phone (a sort of iStripSearch), found the picture of the bra-clad girls, and called the DA’s office.

Wyoming County is just north of Luzerne County, home of Wilkes-Barre, where a juvenile court judge was sending kids to for-profit juvenile jails for the slightest infractions. The judge was getting payoffs from the firm that ran the jail.

Unfortunately, the hammer-obsessed are not confined to Northeast Pennsylvania. At Scatterplot, Drek posted a not-so-uninteresting item about the way Sheboygan, Michigan responds to teen sex – two court cases involving consensual sex between a 17-year-old and a 14-year-old. Drek was concerned about the unequal treatment. The 17-year-old girl with the 14-year-old boyfriend faced up to nine months in jail. The 17-year-old-boy with the 14-year-old girlfriend faces 25 years in prison.

Do any other advanced countries rely on extreme criminal penalties to deal with consensual sex between teenagers? Even if it’s sex that most adults don’t approve of, isn’t there some less destructive way to deal with it?


E. said...

i didn't even know sex between a 17 year old and a 14 year old was illegal! when both actors are under 17 and it is consensual, is jail really going to provide a solution for them?

on a lighter note, a little girl named Grace Kelly needs no proof of her innocence.

Jay Livingston said...

I guess that in Michigan, seventeen is the age of consent -- not that consent much matters.