It was an amazing example of television broadcasting creating ... or better, fabricating ... a story out of thin air. Unfortunately, for all of us, the mischief that entrepreneurial journalism of that sort can gin up is enormous.
I would like to raise a thin voice of protest against what was done in this instance—not because I think the reporters, talking heads or editors involved are malintentioned; and not because I think the public officials who crumpled like wet newsprint instead of standing up in support of an important principle are necessarily cowardly.
No, I'd like to examine instead another aspect exposed of this case: how the public's attitude about teenage offenders can actually make Albuquerque less secure well into the future.
Three years ago a 13-year-old boy in Albuquerque joined an older teen in a terrible crime. They were caught, tried and convicted of murder. The hideous nature of what they did to their victim made it a front page story for several weeks. Ultimately the older boy was sentenced as an adult and is serving a life sentence in prison.
However, the younger boy, because of his extreme youth, was not handled as an adult. He was instead turned over to the juvenile correctional system for detention until he turns 21. That is the way New Mexico law said he should have been handled. It is what most states do. He did not get special handling; he got what all 13-year-olds in a similar situation get.
Juvenile laws are based on the presumption that bent twigs can be straightened and grow into tall trees. We believe that teenage lives can be changed for the better by employing techniques of rehabilitation that are constantly being innovated, improved and assessed. Rehabilitation does work. It is possible to reform youthful offenders.
When they reach 21 years of age, they are all going to be released back into the community, a certainty that ought to shape all of our efforts. Do we want them returning to the community prepared for life as caring, productive members, or do we want them returning as further-damaged, dangerous and resentful members? (Hint: The correct answer is the one that will lower your homeowner insurance rates, law enforcement costs and anxiety level.)
The way to prepare offenders to successfully transfer out of the institution involves providing opportunities to venture out, initially in tightly controlled situations of brief duration. Eventually those baby steps are stretched into longer experiences with controls gradually relaxed. If all goes well, the young adult will be realistically prepared for life outside.
It won't work to keep him tightly contained up to the very minute of release and then to expect that miraculously he will cope. Unlearning the bad lessons picked up early in life is not rocket science, but it does take consistent effort, and it takes a commitment from those in charge of the process to stick with it—even when a clamor is raised on the 10 o'clock news.
The process of rehabilitation should not be subject to the ebb and flow of public opinion. But two weeks ago in Albuquerque, it was.
Our 13-year-old offender has now been in the custody of the Department of Children, Youth and Families for three years. According to those who work with him, he has made great strides academically, socially and in emotional maturity.
As a way to further prepare him for life after CYFD, he was approved to attend a daytime meeting of high school students with college potential at the University of New Mexico. As an early baby-step in the process of preparing him for the day, in 2009, when he will be released, he was accompanied on the trip to the campus by correctional officials.
But within minutes of arriving at UNM, he was recognized by a television reporter who had covered his trial three years ago. That was the start of an incredible fiasco. The reporter filmed the student, and then contacted the victim's family for their views on rehabilitating a killer.
Informed by the reporter that he was attending a meeting on campus, they were outraged. Voila! A non-story suddenly became the lead piece on Channel 13's evening news, and the Albuquerque Journal jumped on this invention and made it the front page lead the next morning!
Nothing had happened. The student was hustled back to detention, the visit aborted. Yet this wisp of a story lingered on the fringe of public attention for several more days before eventually dwindling to the page 4, two-paragraph mini-tale it should have started out as.
CYFD Secretary Mary Dale Bolson got severe whiplash diving away from responsibility, as did several other intermediate level functionaries in the organization. She eventually accepted the resignation of someone farther down the line—someone who apparently made the mistake of believing the Department's own blither about rehabilitation.
Even Gov. Richardson got into the act, decrying what he termed "irresponsible actions" and saying he would not have approved if he'd been asked. (Think about that a second: Ask the governor? I thought he might have been too busy.) UNM officials also donned cowardly lion robes; said they should have been notified and that they were "worried" about it.
The entire episode can be summed up as an exercise in fear-mongering. It cannot build our confidence in a juvenile justice system when its own operators apparently are not willing to stand up to trumped-up hysteria. Channel 13 did us all a disservice, but so did the scaredy cats at the helms of CYFD and UNM.