Charging 14-year-old as adult shows ‘potential for bias’
Recently in Bristol, Vermont, a 14-year old Somali American child was accused of fatally shooting a peer.
First and foremost, we are deeply pained by the tragic loss of life as the result of gun violence. The life of Madden Gouveia matters and we extend our heartfelt sympathy to the Gouveia family.
As complex and painful as this situation is, we also know that the life of the 14-year-old child that found himself with a gun matters as well.
The initial reaction by States Attorney Eva Vekos was to charge the child as an adult. “A life was lost because of what happened, so we have to address that in the most serious of terms,” said Vekos. While the Rutland Area NAACP agrees that accountability for loss of life is of utmost concern, we also know that charging a child as an adult is not the way to honor that life, nor does it prevent such a loss from happening again. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that such an approach to accountability actually increases the likelihood of future harm—both to the child who is charged and to the broader community.
The NAACP has always been an organization dedicated to accountability, and so we commend the swift action of those who responded to the tragedy in Bristol. But there is a difference between accountability and punishment. There is also a difference between punishing people commensurate with their offense or delinquency and punishing people because of outrage or bias. This statement is a call for analysis and reflection to Addison County State’s Attorney Eva Vekos and the decision to charge this child as an adult.
When tragedy happens, it is a normal response to want to place blame immediately; to find a ”bad guy” and to institute punitive measures as a way to protect others from experiencing the same loss. However, at times, in our haste to find someone to hold accountable for such a violent offense, we may rely on our instinctive reactions and overlook a comprehensive analysis both in our approach to actualizing justice and in our approach to understanding the situation. This rush to judgment can lead us to oversimplify our intervention, hampering our ability to create an environment conducive to prevention and leaves us far from truly addressing the root of the issue.
In essence, a lack of in-depth scrutiny inhibits both the holistic understanding of the situation and the development of effective intervention and prevention measures.
There is a history and a present day reality that we draw upon. The NAACP is an 115-year-old organization whose mission includes supportive policies and institutions for all marginalized people.
In these years of advocacy, political and moral change, here is what we know:
- Youth of color are disproportionately represented in cases sent to adult court (even in Vermont) as shown in 18 of the largest court jurisdictions, where 82% of juvenile cases filed in adult court involved youth of color.
- Neurology and psychology experts resoundingly agree that youth brains are not fully developed and therefore, unless there is an extreme circumstance, should not be treated as adults.
- Youth who are sentenced as adults and sentenced as adults have far worse outcomes and are more susceptible to being victims of physical and sexual abuse, as well as death by suicide.
While we don’t know all of the evidence in this particular case, we do know the history and present day reality of bias in our criminal justice system. We do know that human nature wants to blame someone immediately and we know that digging for the root of the problem is a difficult conversation. We know that boys like this 14-year-old Black child are not inherently valued by a system and dominant culture that will determine the fate of his humanity.
Difficult conversations like why children have access to guns at all is messy. It’s wrought with debate and reference to rights and the constitution. Regardless, it’s a conversation and an analysis that really needs to happen before jumping to punitive measures. The lack of resources for youth who commit delinquencies is another serious issue that is also exemplified by this case.
Charging a 14-year-old as an adult and subjecting them to the possibility of a life sentence in prison for what seems to be a mistake is an instinctive response driven by the desire to find accountability through punitive actions. However, shouldn’t our ultimate goal and vindication be centered on preventing such incidents from recurring?
As long as we overlook the broader and often complex aspects of these discussions, including the role of bias in the decision to charge a child as an adult and the means by which minors access firearms, we may never truly achieve justice. Instead, we risk perpetuating the same harmful cycles.
In the following days, we hope to have a conversation with States Attorney Vekos to talk about the potential for bias in the decision to charge this child as an adult. We will discuss the larger, more difficult conversations to be had if she is open to that. We will also continue to have these difficult conversations about bias in our criminal justice systems, the application of charging minors as adults and access to guns with the legislators in our state.