Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

From middle school to prison?

Compassion | A murder charge against a 12-year-old in Texas puts juvenile justice in the spotlight
by Charissa Koh
Posted 1/30/19, 02:19 pm

Authorities in a small Texas town near San Antonio charged a 12-year-old boy with capital murder this week, raising questions about the best approach to juvenile justice.

The boy, whose name has not been released, is accused of shooting John Duane VanMeter, a 24-year-old aspiring professional boxer, in his home in Uvalde, Texas, on Jan. 23. VanMeter’s fiancée, Sammy Arellano, told the San Antonio Express-News that the suspect had stayed with them intermittently after befriending her son, but he was a bad influence and had stolen from them. She and VanMeter recently told the boy he was no longer welcome in their home.

At about 8 p.m. on the day of the shooting, the family heard a loud sound like someone trying to kick in the front door. VanMeter went to investigate and was shot. Witnesses said they saw a young man wearing all black with a bandana over his face running away from the house. Police took the suspect to a juvenile detention center a few hours later and the next day announced he had been charged with capital murder, becoming one of the youngest ever in the nation to receive that charge.

Capital murder differs from first-degree murder because it involves a special circumstance such as killing an on-duty police officer or committing another felony at the time of the killing. In the Uvalde case, the special circumstance could be breaking and entering or burglary, though prosecutors have not yet confirmed it. Adults charged with capital murder, the most severe form of felony, are eligible for the death penalty, but a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision restricted courts from sentencing juveniles to death. In the case of the Uvalde boy, the prosecutor is pushing for 40 years in prison, what the federal sentencing commission calls a de facto life sentence. Juvenile justice advocates argue the boy’s age should cause the prosecutor to reconsider.

“Throughout the last several years, the United States Supreme Court has made it clear—juveniles must be treated differently than adults in the criminal justice system,” Mandy Miller, an attorney in the Houston area who has represented several juveniles convicted of capital murder, told me. “This is due to both their behavioral and physiological lack of maturity.”

Secular and faith-based juvenile justice workers agree that community- and family-centered treatment are better for youth offenders than incarceration.

“We know from evidence and experience that young people do better when connected to their families and communities; when isolated and confined, they can become more traumatized and disengaged,” Prison Fellowship Senior Vice President Craig DeRoche and juvenile justice advocate Amy Woolard wrote in a 2016 op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Though incarceration might be necessary for some violent offenders, a de facto life sentence would prevent any meaningful rehabilitation, Miller said, adding, “Depending on the crime and the prior background, a long sentence, coupled with some sort of supervised release is conceivable, but all of this depends heavily on the facts of the case and the child’s background.”

Facebook/California Check Cashing Stores Facebook/California Check Cashing Stores A California Check Cashing Stores location

Predatory loan forgiveness

California Check Cashing Stores must refund consumers nearly $800,000 to settle claims of predatory lending practices, state officials said Monday. The company was accused of pushing borrowers into high-interest loans and engaging in other illegal schemes.

State examiners said they found that, from 2012 to 2017, the payday lender overcharged customers interest and fees by steering them into bigger loans. State law caps interest rates at between 20 and 30 percent for loans less than $2,500, but anything above that does not have a cap. Advertisements claimed the company made loans of “up to $5,000,” but it had a minimum loan amount of $2,501.

The lender also agreed to pay $105,000 in penalties and other costs in a consent order with the state’s Department of Business Oversight.

In an ongoing effort to fight abusive, high-interest loans, the state agency has charged four other companies—Advance America, Check Into Cash, Quick Cash Funding, and Speedy Cash—with various illegal efforts to push loans above the $2,500 threshold. —Alyssa Jackson

A career poverty fighter

The American Enterprise Institute on Jan. 18 announced the selection of Robert Doar as the organization’s new president. Doar, whom WORLD Magazine profiled in 2013, is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at AEI and previously served as New York City’s commissioner of the Human Resources Administration. He also was co-chairman of the National Commission on Hunger and a member of the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity. He will assume the role of president on July 1. —C.C.

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Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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