Will a Child Be Charged in the Fires?

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Jonathan Alcorn / Zumapress

A firefighter battle flames at a house that burned to the ground on Camp Plenty Road during a 12,500-acre brush fire that started near Agua Dulce.

The 10-year-old boy who accidentally started one of the worst California wildfires last month could face stern consequences, should prosecutors decide to bring charges. Though too young to be charged as an adult, the boy could still face millions of dollars in fines, removal from his home and possible detention as a ward of the state. For now the boy's fate — and that of his parents, who would be partially liable for any restitution payments he would have to pay — rests with Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. His office told TIME he has not yet decided how to proceed. "The matter is under review," spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons told TIME on Monday. "No decision has been made."

To bring those charges, all Cooley must decide is whether the boy knew right from wrong — an easy standard to meet, other prosecutors in the state say. "That is a lot easier to establish than you would think," said Cyndi Jo Means, a deputy district attorney in nearby San Diego County who leads that county's juvenile division arson team. "Think of your own children, even very small children; most of the time they know when they did something wrong."

Despite the low hurdle to prosecution, Means contends the California juvenile justice system seeks to help young suspects, who can benefit from counseling and close supervision from the court and case workers. Children under 14 are nearly always charged as juveniles, not adults — no matter what the crime. "We try to help the child, and prosecuting them as adults would not be very helpful," Means said. Any finding of guilt, she added, would not follow the boy into adulthood.

Southern Californians are still sorting through the wreckage from the fires, which burned more than 800 square miles — an area 40 times as large as Manhattan — and destroyed some 2,100 homes. The 10-year-old's carelessness sparked the Buckweed fire in Los Angeles County, which destroyed 21 homes and injured at least three people. Those losses have left some residents in a less than forgiving mood. "If you accidentally set a massive fire that destroys homes, causes residents to flee for their lives and requires millions of dollars in resources to extinguish, then you damn well need to pay the piper," wrote Dave Bossert on his online newspaper, The West Ranch Beacon.

Peter Arenella, a professor at the UCLA Law School said any prosecution of a 10-year-old that aims to punish the boy, rather than help him, "is an absurdity. The only justification for that would be if, in some extreme case, there was a need to protect society from him." Barring that, he said, prosecutors should be reluctant to sweep the boy up into the legal system.

It's hard to see how stern consequences — taking the boy from his parents, for instance, and handing down a multi-million fine — would be helpful to the 10-year-old. Much of the decision of whether to prosecute him rests with Cooley, who like prosecutors everywhere has a great deal of discretion. Unless uglier details about the boy's behavior are discovered, he could decide that in this case playing with matches doesn't rise the level of arson — even if the boy admits he knew that doing so was wrong. As Means points out, children almost always admit they knew their actions were wrong when they are questioned by police or prosecutors, which can be a scary experience for a kid.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for inmates who were under 18 when they committed their crimes, it argued that teenagers' brains are not fully formed until they are grown, and that punishing them as adults was therefore cruel and unusual. No one is saying a 10-year-old boy ought to be executed for setting a fire, but even the lesser punishment the boy is facing could be nearly as cruel. That has led some to argue that the bar for prosecution ought to be higher than simply proving that he knew right from wrong. Boys know lots of things are wrong — from ignoring bedtimes to eating too many cookies. A better standard, some argue, would be determining whether the boy, at 10, had any way of knowing the consequences of what he was doing with those matches. With reporting by Jill Underwood/San Diego