guns, institutions, murder, prison, rehabilitation, violence

Let’s keep asking questions about Joseph Hall

Sometimes this country demoralizes me. This was the case when I read Natasha Vargos-Cooper’s insightful and thorough article “I Shot Dad” on BuzzFeed. Her article tells the story of Joseph Hall, a 10-year-old who shot his father, the leader of a neo-Nazi movement after a lifetime of abuse and neglect. This January the now 12-year-old Californian boy was convicted of murder. He faces several decades in prison.

Not only does Vargos-Cooper detail the disturbing events leading up to Hall shooting his father and the inability of Child Services to remove the child from this poisonous environment, she poses some excellent moral questions that the American criminal justice system has long refused to confront:

“What drives a 10-year-old to murder? Does Joseph bear less of the blame if he was physically abused? What if he was not abused but just neglected? What of the other thousands of children who have case files, the ones who are ritually tortured by their caretakers but do not kill? Is the only difference between them and Joseph the easy access to firearms? Or was Joseph condemned before he was even born, marinating inside a womb basted with methamphetamines and heroin?

“Even if he is not considered psychotic, could the act of murder by a 10-year-old be anything other than a sign of some sort of mental illness? (…)

“(…) In the end, what real individual responsibility can be assigned to any child forced to lead the life imposed on Joseph? What chance of a normal life did he ever have?”

I would like to extend Vargos-Cooper’s excellent questions. What about a murderer who is 18 (the age of my book’s badly abused protagonist)? Or even 25?

Criminologists who have examined the psychological dimension of violent crime—Don Andrew, Francis Cullen, Cheryl Jonson, Edward Latessa, Alexander Holsinger, Christopher Lowencamp and Paul Genreau, for example—have long warned of so-called criminogenic risk factors. But somehow their warnings haven’t reached applied criminal justice. Crime-causing risk factors include low school performance, antisocial values and beliefs, a dysfunctional (and criminal) family background, aggression, lack of individual attention and abuse, wanting problem solving skills and self-control. Add poverty and the easy availability of guns and you have the perfect storm. In other words, murder rarely happens without forewarning, and there are almost always a slew of predictors leading up to the crime.

The good thing is that many of these risk factors are “dynamic” (as opposed to static) and can be changed. With professional cognitive-behavioral treatment, a child who exhibits these volatile characteristics can potentially be “turned around.” Unfortunately, this type of treatment is virtually absent in America’s prison system.

Michael Soccio, the prosecuting district attorney in Joseph Hall’s case, told reporters that his primary concern is the public’s safety. But in the end it is myopic to throw a 12-year-old into prison for a decade or two. Eventually he has to be released. And then what? The public will have to deal with an individual who is older and stronger and who has been brought up among criminals in an exceptionally antisocial environment. At age 20 or 25 Joseph Hall may very well feel even angrier and more vulnerable than he was when he shot his father as a 10-year-old. Do you think that this outcome is compatible with the public safety?