In early June of this year, the nation briefly turned its attention to, and subsequently clutched its pearls in the direction of, a disturbing incident in Wisconsin in which two 12-year-old girls allegedly stabbed a friend 19 times in an attempt to sacrifice her to a fictional horror character called “Slenderman”. The victim of this attack could easily have been killed, and will certainly be both physically and psychologically scarred. Normally I don’t pay any attention to news stories about isolated incidents that occur far away from me, even when those incidents are undeniably strange and disturbing like this one was, unless there is some reason to do so other than fear-mongering sensationalism. This case had no shortage of fear mongering sensationalism, but I started paying attention when I learned that these two disturbed pre-teens were charged in adult court and put in danger of spending decades in prison.

It is unfathomable to me that 12 year old children could find themselves in adult court, regardless of the magnitude of their alleged offense. I have been involved in the juvenile justice system in two law-and-order states, Louisiana and Alabama, and neither of those states would allow a child of this age to be in adult court facing adult time. Louisiana may not bring 12 year olds to adult court, but we charge some 14 year olds as adults. We charge 15 year olds as adults if they are accused of burglarizing a house more than once, or for a second charge of distribution of a controlled substance. Alabama has no direct file into adult court before the age of 16. It never occurred to me that some states could be less merciful towards adolescent offenders than Louisiana and Alabama. It turns out that Wisconsin law allows children as young as 10 years old to be charged as adults. This must change.

I expressed outrage on social media. I got the requisite, “Adult time for adult crime,” from some quarters but an old friend from Alabama who is as law-and-order oriented as a person can be, but is also a former Juvenile Probation Officer, agreed with me that this was outrageous. Nevertheless, it occurred to me that the expression, “Adult time for adult crime,” does not really always apply to serious offenses committed by young people, and certainly did not apply in this situation. As serious and as dangerous as this stabbing was, it was in no way an “adult crime”.

If media accounts are accurate, these children became obsessed with a fictional character from horror stories. They decided to do a ritual sacrifice to this fictional character by killing one of their friends. These children led the kind of active fantasy life that is more similar to kids pretending to be Superman than to adults plotting wrongdoing. No one says that a child who jumps from a height in the belief that he can fly has done an adult act. Everyone understands that this is the act of a child, and that it does not in any way suggest that the child will grow into an adult who acts foolishly and dangerously.

The science of adolescent development, and the common sense of anyone who has ever spent time with children, shows us that children have underdeveloped sense of empathy. A child who has trouble connecting that another person has feelings, wants, desires, and a right to exist does not necessarily grow into an adult who has similar problems. An adult with underdeveloped empathy is suffering from a serious mental illness. A child with underdeveloped empathy is just an ordinary and healthy child. Children are also more vulnerable to peer pressure, lack ability to think of long term consequences, are more impulsive, and don’t have a full appreciation of risk. All of us did things as children that we look back on with a mix of winsomeness and horror. For sure, most do not stab anyone, and no one can say how these two children got the point of doing so, but in a few years these two girls will be very different people from the girls who nearly killed their friend, and there is every reason to believe they will be significantly less dangerous even if they receive no help whatsoever.

The attorneys for these children are working diligently to get these children back into juvenile court where they should have been all along. If they are successful, and there are no guarantees that they will be, some of the damage will already have been done. The press has printed the names of these children repeatedly. For the rest of their lives a simple internet search of their names will bring up this horrific chapter of their lives. I am glad that the worst things I did as a child are not available to people I meet now.

While these attorneys are doing their best to help their clients, the rest of us should be working to make sure that no more 12 year old children face adult court and adult sentences. The great bulk of the burden juvenile defense falls on the shoulders of public defenders. We are uniquely situated to counter the “Adult time for adult crime” mantra. We are uniquely situated to change the conversation from “look at those crazy kids and their ridiculous Slenderman worship” to “what kind of a system allows someone to be in prison into her 70s for something she did before she was at full height?” No one should go directly from sleeping with stuffed animals to sleeping in a prison cell. Each of us should be looking at our state laws and asking ourselves if they make sense. Each of us should start telling people that locking up children for decades can never be right. Each of us should be cultivating relationships with our elected officials and making sure they hear counterarguments to the nonstop hue and cry that society is headed straight to Mad Max territory. If not us, who?