5/16/11

Justice Not Done in Phoebe Prince Case

Is six months probation appropriate compensation for Phoebe Prince's death?

It began with a thunderclap and ended in crocodile tears. Even if you don’t live in Western Massachusetts you’ve probably heard of Phoebe Prince (pictured). She was the fifteen-year-old Irish √©migr√© who hanged herself after brutal bouts of bullying from six teens at South Hadley High School, one of whom was an eighteen-year-old football player with whom she had sex, and another of whom was his erstwhile girlfriend. The case more than consumed South Hadley--it totally devoured it. It touched off torrents of tears, months of anguished handwringing, and bitter recrimination against the teens involved, teachers who turned a blind eye, and school administrators who failed to act upon information that some teachers and parents did provide. Former District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel did the right thing and brought criminal charges against the teens involved.

So how did it all end? New Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan accepted plea bargains that, in essence, wiped the record clean and left the school district off the hook. The bullies involved showed up in court--attorneys in tow--apologized, shed a few tears, and were handed sentenced to probation periods of six months to a year, after which their records will be wiped clean and charges expunged. Sullivan vigorously defended himself against charges that the sentences were a “mere slap on the wrist,” and insisted the kids had “punished in other ways,” including media scrutiny, soul searching, and community ostracism. In what was surely the triumph of rhetoric over reality, Sullivan declared an end to the era of turning a “blind eye to bullying.”

At this point I should confess that I voted for Sullivan when Scheibel retired. But his ham-handed handling of the Phoebe Prince case he inherited gives me pause and I doubt I’ll cast a vote for reelection. No one wanted to see the kids involved tossed away on a fiery heap of vengeance; not Anne O'Brien, Prince’s mother, wanted that. Place me in the camp that says we don’t want to hold someone accountable forever for something awful done as an impulsive adolescent. I’m also glad the statutory rape charge was dropped against the eighteen-year-old--that law is a relic completely out of synch with the way real teens behave. Message to moralists: If you don’t want kids to have sex, put an end to the culture that begins sexualizing girls when they’re prepubescent “beauty queens.”

But I do recall an axiom from my own days as a social worker--If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. I’m sorry, but probation and a clean record is a wrist slap, no matter how Sullivan dissects it. In lieu of an aggressive look into the school district, I’m also leery of end-to-bullying nostrums. From where I sit, the message sent in the Prince case is simply another chapter in the “apology” culture that’s rampant in our society--do what you want until you get caught, and then act really, really sorry. Do lawyers still practice law these days, or have they become drama coaches who teach method acting to defendants?

Let me run a scenario. Let’s say that the kids who bullied Phoebe Prince were not middle-class teens from middle-class South Hadley. Let’s cross the Connecticut River and make them public housing kids from Holyoke. Let’s make them black and Hispanic rather than white. And let’s give each of them the public defender, not privately retained lawyers. Do those kids get six months probation and dropped charges? I suspect that the community reaction to that would be analogous to old horror films where we see the villagers marching on the castle with fiery torches in one hand and pitchforks in the other.

A more appropriate actionwould have been a suspended jail sentence of six months to a year. Let’s take stock here. The six teens involved will, at some point, get on with their lives, their stain and shame notwithstanding. Phoebe Prince won’t get that chance and these six are at least partially to blame for that. Probation without consequence is simply not an appropriate punishment. The county where I used to work often used a modified “Scared Straight” tactic where kids in their late teens were arraigned on Friday afternoon, bail was set high, and they spent the weekend in jail until parents could arrange bond on Monday. (The jail housed them away from the general population.) Maybe that’s overly harsh, but it’s not too harsh to say that the burden is on the teens involved in the Prince case need to prove that theirs was a horrifying one-time mistake and that the tears and apologies are sincere, not rehearsed. My bare minimum--and one I would have advocated in my days as a juvenile probation officer--would have been a stipulation of three-to-five years of non-criminal behavior as a prerequisite for sealing the charges. I would have also encouraged a thorough investigation of the school district. Phoebe Prince is dead, six teens have some serious redemption to do, and District Attorney Sullivan dropped the ball.

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