McLaughlin should be sentenced as a child

It’s sad. It’s tragic. It’s senseless, horrific, maddening, frightening, surreal, absurd, symptomatic, indicative, moving, complicated, gruesome, heartbreaking and inexplicable. Most of all, the shooting last week at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn., is done, it’s over, and nothing can undo what that messed-up kid decided to do.

Writers and Stearns County residents have eloquently expressed their sorrow and loss in various articles and interviews over the last several days. I have nothing to add to that terrible grieving process except sympathy for those affected and a sincere concern over what happens next.

A juvenile offender, like the one charged with second-degree murder Friday for the death of one student and, possibly, the death of another who is currently hooked up to a respirator, can be legally tried and sentenced as an adult at 14 years old. The alleged gunman, John Jason McLaughlin, is 15, and there is a clamor from many to prosecute and sentence him as an adult. This should not happen.

After such a senseless act, the desire to punish and punish ferociously is understandable and, beyond that, natural. Yearbook pictures show the accused and his victims, their hair carefully combed, smiles forced as their friends goon behind the photographer; it is impossible to know who the predator and the prey are without the captions – all three look like kids. All three are kids.

Right now I am looking at a picture of the gunman. I feel only anger and disappointment toward him – that and a puerile desire to spend five minutes alone with him in a small room. If my anger is so acute concerning the Cold Spring case, how must the victims’ parents and community members feel? Maybe they can only feel despair. Maybe they wish the student in custody dead. Whatever their feelings, my feelings or your feelings, they should have little or nothing to do with what happens next to the accused teen.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention releases regular reports concerning juvenile crime and national policy trends concerning adult sentencing of minors. Anyone who watches Court TV or reads a daily paper knows there are children under 18 – and under 13, for that matter – across the country who receive “blended sentences” (juvenile detention followed by time in an adult prison) for violent crimes. Many of these crimes are less calculated and less brutal than the Cold Spring shooting.

There is no evidence suggesting harsh adult or blended sentences for violent juvenile offenders prevent violent juvenile crime. It satisfies an immediate desire to inflict as much fear and pain as possible on the offenders. It does remove some young people from the streets for many years, but only to release them as adults hardened by the intensely punitive U.S. prison system.

The senseless death of one high school student and the potentially fatal injuries suffered by another is not fair. Sentencing their attacker to five years in a juvenile detention facility for treatment is not fair. Justice will never be achieved in Cold Spring concerning the Rocori High School shooting, just like justice was not delivered in Florida last year, Michigan the year before that or in Kentucky two years ago.

There is no way to right the atrocious wrongs committed by children against children. All that is left to the people of Stearns County is slow healing and every effort to ensure the third child in this tragedy, the one who hurt them beyond description, is not lost to a collective vengeance mirroring the confused motivations he felt that cold morning last week.

Aaron North’s column appears alternating Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]