Does One-Size-Fits-All Justice Really Fit?

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The minds of murderers and children share one key characteristic: They will always be a mystery to the rest of us. This truth was never more evident than on Thursday, when 13-year-old Nathaniel Abraham, who was found guilty of fatally shooting 18-year-old Ronnie Green in 1997, was sentenced to spend the next seven years in Michigan's juvenile detention system, against the prosecution's pleas for a harsher sentence. Impassively observing the proceedings, Abraham stared balefully into the distance as his fate was decided; his lawyer reports the boy asked him "What happened?" after court was adjourned. For his part, Judge Eugene Moore made an obvious effort to balance his scathing indictment of Michigan's approach to juvenile justice — which allows children to be tried as adults for serious crimes — and his demands for personal responsibility from Abraham. "We as a community have failed you, but you have also failed us and yourself," Moore said to the boy.

"Faced with an increasingly conservative trend in state legislatures, many of which want a straitjacket approach to juvenile justice, Judge Moore was trying to find a reasonable answer to a very complicated question," says TIME senior reporter Alain Sanders. Abraham's case attracted international attention after Amnesty International showcased the boy, who could have faced a life sentence, in an exposé on the cruelties of the American criminal justice system. "People are torn on the topic of juvenile crime and punishment," says Sanders. "On the one hand, murder is murder, and you can't just let kids run around doing whatever they like. On the other hand, even the smartest kid doesn't have the same perspective on his actions that the dumbest adult has." Experts don't expect the Michigan legislature to be much moved by Judge Moore's pleas for a more humane approach to juvenile justice; it seems the current horror at a rash of felonies committed by children outweighs any desire for a more age-appropriate treatment of young criminals.