It's difficult to even begin to imagine what the family of Rebecca D'Aoust is going through right now. D'Aoust is the Scripps Ranch woman whose daughter, 14-year-old Heather, allegedly bludgeoned her with a hammer on the morning of May 25. D'Aoust was taken to the hospital and died the following day.
Heather was arraigned May 29. A judge ordered that her face be obscured in any news footage; all viewers saw was the teen's gangly orange-jumpsuit-clad body and her short hair, recently dyed black. Heather's father, James D'Aoust, talked to reporters afterward, calmly explaining that his daughter wasn't “evil.” He said she has problems that the family's been trying to figure out how to cope with. Heather's lawyer, former District Attorney Paul Pfingst, told reporters that the 14-year-old is mentally ill, though he didn't elaborate, saying only that he planned to present evidence of this to Bonnie Dumanis, the current DA.
If, indeed, Heather suffers from mental illness, it's likely her family was only beginning to recognize the extent of it.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly half of all people who'll develop serious mental illness start exhibiting symptoms around age 14. Like a lot of maladies, mental illness can have a slow onset, exhibiting itself in fits and starts, which only complicates diagnosis.
Despite her dad's pleas, there's not much public sympathy for Heather—at least according to a poll featured on one local news website in which almost 62 percent of respondents agreed with Dumanis' decision to try Heather as an adult. That public sentiment mirrors Prop. 21, also known as the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act, authored by former Gov. Pete Wilson. The ballot measure passed easily in 2000 with 62 percent of voters supporting it.
The law was intended to curb what was arguably a growing juvenile-crime trend, especially among teens affiliated with gangs. Prior to Prop. 21, minors between ages 14 and 17 who committed serious crimes would get a “fitness hearing” in juvenile court, where a prosecutor would have to convince a judge that the minor should be tried as an adult. While the majority of young offenders who committed a serious crime ended up in adult court, Prop. 21 removed that level of judicial discretion that often helped weed out teens with extenuating circumstances, like mental illness, and left it up to the district attorney—who's also the one prosecuting the minor—to decide whether adult court was the appropriate venue for the case.
In the juvenile-justice system, the emphasis is on rehabilitation. Plenty of studies have found that because the adolescent brain isn't fully developed until around age 20, especially the part that regulates impulsive behavior, young people are more responsive to rehabilitative programs. Sentencing in juvenile court is far less harsh, too. Teens remanded to the California Youth Authority can't be held past age 25, but a teen who's tried in adult court not only faces a much longer sentence (in Heather's case, 25 years to life for murder, plus an additional two to four years for assaulting her father) but, under a provision of Prop. 21, is sent to an adult prison where he or she is kept separated from other prisoners until age 18.
Whether or not Heather is truly mentally ill and to what extent only complicates matters. Prosecutors spent only two days deciding how to handle her case and, as far as what's been said publicly, that decision didn't include any kind of psychiatric evaluation. Unless you've experienced mental illness firsthand—you, personally, or a friend or family member—it's impossible to fully understand the extent to which the most severe forms of mental illness can take control of a person's behavior.
Sadly, it's something in which our criminal justice system isn't well-schooled. Too often, mentally ill people who commit unimaginable crimes are labeled “monsters” by prosecutors and, in turn, by much of the public—people who've shown utter unwillingness to understand that mental illness is a diagnosed medical condition and not a character flaw. There's a reason why there are more mentally ill individuals in prisons than in mental hospitals and why correctional facilities have been dubbed “the asylums of the 21st century.”
It's this paper's position that the opinions of relatives of victims shouldn't factor in to decisions on criminal sentencing, but this is different. James D'Aoust is family to both the victim and the alleged perpetrator. His opinion matters a great deal to us, and he'd like his daughter tried in juvenile court. He says Heather needs help—which, if the accusation against her is true, is obvious—and the last place she's going to get it is in adult prison.
Trying a child as an adult should be an option reserved for the worst of the worst—juveniles who've demonstrated that society is safer with them separated from us. Dumanis appears to have been able to reach the conclusion that Heather is beyond rehabilitation in a mere 48 hours, which we find alarming. Dumanis owes it to Mr. D'Aoust to rescind her decision until a complete psychiatric evaluation is performed.
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