Crime and Punishment Fire

Should a 16-year-old Arsonist Be Tried As an Adult?


While there have been no suspects arrested yet
in the deadly Station fire, Wednesday police had a press conference to announce they had a suspect in the recent (and still burning) fire near Yucaipa. Here’s what the LA Times said about the arrest:

A 16-year-old boy seen riding a bike away from a brush fire
near Yucaipa on Wednesday is suspected of starting a dozen fires that ravaged the area over the last three years, including two large blazes earlier this month.

San Bernardino County prosecutors are trying to figure out if they should try the 16-year old as an adult. (Answer: No. You shouldn’t.)

But the rather mind boggling thing is the fact that the cops believe their teenage suspect may have set between 12 and 14 other fires in the past three years.

Really? 12 to 14 fires?
Where were the adults when this adolescent firebug was striking matches? This boy has been setting blazes since he was 13-years-old and no one has thought to intervene until now? And, now, of course, we want to send him to adult prison?

If I were an editor with reporters to assign, I would put someone on the boy the minute that his name is released. Who is this kid and why has he (allegedly) been setting fires? And who else should have known about his arsonist’s proclivities? The answer is bound to be telling.

[NOTE: Light posting this morning. Back with more soon.]


  • Parents are often the last to know what their kids are doing, and investigators need more information than someone saw the kid nearby…until, there are multiple reports of that.

    He should not be tried as an adult, but maybe a week in a cell with Rob Thomas would make him change his ways.

  • A brief examination of WTF’s logic:

    Homboy Industries tries to reform gang members. Not all gang members are reformed. Therefore Homebody has not reformed any gang members and should be shuttered.

    Not very impressive.

  • Back on topic, I remember hearing that arson is one of those crimes people keep on committing so I fired up the google machine to see if that’s true. From what I can tell, the data is pretty mixed though there is evidence that a small minority of fire-starters fit the pyromaniac image and are high risk. This got me thinking a bit.

    Our justice system, founded on centuries old ideas about guilt and innocence, just isn’t set up to take into account modern ideas about recidivism risk. One results is that we pass stupid laws that treat all lawbreakers like high recidivism risks, which leads to needless punishment for some and major expense for all of us. Meanwhile, resources are spread thin and truly high-risk individuals are not necessarily given the attention warranted once they are out of prison/jail.

    So here’s my question to Celeste any of the commenters: How good are we at identifying and calibrating recidivism risks? Once we’ve identified them, are there any enforcement strategies other than incarceration that reduce the likely hood of recidivism?

  • He’s 16. he’s a boy, try him as a BOY! In too many states when an adult has sex with a 16-year-old, they’re just a child – but when this same 16-year-old commits certain crimes, ta da! They suddenly morph into an adult. Disgusting hypocrisy.

  • Mavis,

    We’re awful at it, and REALLY good question.

    Charles, couldn’t agree with you more.

    WTF: Right. When a certain percentage of the guys in AA fall off the wagon, our first move should be to shut down AA. Fine logic you got going there.

    Here’s one of those tough little facts of life about gang intervention and recovery programs, they generally work with (gasp, choke, wheeze) gang members.

    Mon dieu! Quelle horreur!

    Get a grip.

  • I worked a murder where a 12 year old kid walked into a small business went up to the owner shot him in the head and robbed the place. Would have been nice if the parents would have got help for him when they found out he was torturing and killing neighborhood pets but that would mean actually being a caring parent. This kid was the reincarnation of Michael Meyer (Halloween, and he’ll be out soon if not already.

    Some juveniles need to be tried as adults, anyone who thinks otherwise is thinking with their heart and not their head. Not all psychotic teens are gang members. I don’t know enough about this case or the background of the suspect to say how he should be tried but to say that no teenager should ever be tried as an adult is non-thinking at it’s worst and putting ideology ahead of public safety.

    As for Homeboy, I know they’ve done some good work but when you paint it with a halo you have to expect a little flack when some of it’s people take part in criminal activity. Liberals love to use that broad brush to paint all conservatives and when the opposite happens they scream foul.

    I would be interested to know the percentage of employees or gangsters associated with Homeboys that end up arrested again, just wondering.

  • The kid needs to be evaluated before a decision is made to try him as an adult. Is he a budding serial killer, with arson (a typical precursor) just one of the screwy things he had been doing, or did he pick the wrong hobby, or is he an idiot and doesn’t know he’s doing anything wrong?

    Serial arsonists are often dangerous, and this kid shouldn’t be allowed to skate because he’s only 16, if he is in fact a threat.

  • I don’t think anyone said this kid should skate. Whether he’s tried as an adult or a juvinile he’s going to do some time. Some of you act like if he’s not tried as an adult, he won’t be tried at all.

  • I think John Moore has articulated things exactly correctly. (And, no, no one is suggesting that he skate.)

    I told my UCI students yesterday that is is a perfect example of a story that begs for more reporting.

    The kid, on one hand, has no priors, on the other hand the authorities think he may have set MORE than a dozen fires. (!!!!) So what and whom exactly are we looking at here? We don’t know. (Again why no reporter asked a follow-up question after that statement about the 12 to 14 fires simply boggles the mind.)

    A kid can be kept in the juvenile system until he or she is 25 years old. (I don’t know how long he or she could be kept on an arson case.)

    In my cursory reading of the penal code (and I mean really cursorily), it appears that what this kid did is punishable in the adult system by a term of “two, four, or six years,” of which he will do less. (If structures were burned in the fire, then those terms would go up.)

    However, all studies done comparing outcomes of juveniles incarcerated as adults, and those incarcerated for the same crime and duration in the juvenile system suggest that someone tried and locked up in the adult system is more likely to recidivate, and if they commit a new crime is more likely to commit a violent crime than those held in a juvenile system.

    In other words, with most crimes, public safety is more likely to be served by putting a kid in the juvenile system. (Obviously there are exceptions to this generality.)

    Also, the purpose of the American juvenile justice system when it was founded more than 100 years ago, was for the court to look at every kid individually and posit the question: Can this kid be saved? And, if so, how would we best go about it that serves the interest of the juvenile and also takes fully into account the requirements of public safety?

    We have strayed very, very far from that model, especially in the state of California.

    Yet why should common sense, decency and real world outcomes stand in the way of our mania for punishment?

  • The ferocity of gangs wasn’t taken into account 100 years ago Celeste. Young teens weren’t taking part in drive-bys or any other activities associated with the criminal conduct we see from what are basically children taken part in today. Google and see how many gang rapes have hit the news in the past years with youngsters involved in them.

    It’s awhole new world now, the judges I’ve dealt with in juve courts are mostly of the mind, by and large, to attempt to save those they can but they recognize they have a duty to protect the community and act accordingly.

  • He needs to be out prior to reaching 25…..
    I believe the DA will not file directly as an adult.
    If the political pressure continues, the DA will end up filing directly in adult superior court – under prop 21.

  • Opps – sorry Let me correct myself –
    I believe that the DA will surely end up filing the case directly as an adult.

  • Wow, actually a critical article on Cooley’s choosing to chase down and prosecute Polanski for a show trial after all these years, when the victim explicitly doesn’t want it and we have far bigger fish to fry w/ limited funds, like finding and prosecuting criminals who pose an imminent danger, even as we’re debating how many prisoners to release, how many cops to cut, etc.

    This on top of the Editorial section’s very harsh assessment of Cooley’s office’s treating Lisker, last week; the Peagler case… can there finally be a change toward a less obsequious and “hear no evil, see no evil” attitude from this paper? Can it have anything to do with Jim Newton ousted as head of Editorial, and publisher Eddy Hartenstein’s somehow putting an end to the blatant biases there (some of which i’d discussed)?

    Sure sounds like Cooley is running for something else after all, wanting a big show trial to get his name out there and score a “win” vs. Polanski no matter what.

  • He should be tried as a terrorist. This kid was “adult” enough to learn how to plan a fire, set it, and get away with minimal attention- then repeat.

    This kid should spend time in behind bars, serious time.

  • The over-sentencing that we have in many cases in the US is a direct response to popular pressure (fear driven) after the crime rises in the 60s-80s which were coincident with too many soft judges and too many clever lawyers getting fiends released.

    Today, it’s clear to me that sentencing needs to be much more tailored to the criminal – which is the (very crudely done) intent of the three strikes law.

    Unfortunately (and this is one reason conservatives tend to distrust government, and should distrust the criminal justice system), the legal system is, necessarily a bureaucracy and follows the Laws of Bureaucracy. This means that individual bureaucrats (say, prosecutors or judges or defense attorneys) will operate outside and contrary to the intention of the system, and also that the system will be quite ineffective and error prone (click here for a semi-serious article I wrote on the subject – shameless plug).

    So we have this problem: there are a lot of people who are, quite simply, not fit to be in our society. There are others who engage in significant crimes (such as some of the reformed gang members Celeste writes about in her excellent book) who later become safe and productive citizens.

    We have a crummy bureaucracy to sort it out.

    And we really have no choice – bureaucracies are an absolute requirement of democratic government.

    So we shouldn’t be surprised at not-infrequent injustices of the too-jailed or not-enough-jailed variety.

    What is patently clear, however, is that our society has degenerated, values have radically declined, and that has resulted in more criminality and predation.

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