Are High School Athletes Who Haze Teammates Really Juveniles?

Driving. Selecting a college. Deciding whether or not to send a nude selfie. Choosing whether to go play Single-A baseball or join the NCAA cartel without the assistance of an advisor. These are all major, adult decisions and activities that 16 and 17-year-olds routinely face in America. Some psychologists even think teenagers should be allowed to vote. They can’t be much worse than our current electorate, right?

At the very least, high school juniors and seniors should know better than to sexually assault classmates and teammates. However, two recent cases involving suburban high school football players highlight the unwillingness for the criminal justice system to try teenagers as adults particularly when victims are also under the age of 18.

Last year, two Steubenville, Ohio football players, ages 16 and 17, received juvenile detention center sentences for raping a classmate and then spreading videos and photos of the sexual assault on the Internet. One of the men convicted is actually now back playing football at Steubenville High School.

This year, seven varsity football players from Sayreville, New Jersey are accused of hazing and sexually assaulting freshman teammates in the school locker room. The accusations prompted school officials in Sayreville to suspend the players and coaches involved, and to cancel the remainder of the football season.

Yet this week, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office decided to charge the attackers as juveniles. After speaking with a former New Jersey prosecutor and a current Illinois public defender, it appears that this unexpected move is the right one.

New Jersey has a Waiver Statute (Rule 5:22) that allows prosecutors broad discretion in whether to transfer a matter from juvenile court. In New Jersey, all defendants under 18 are initially sent to family court, but prosecutors can decide within 30 days to move them to the criminal system to be tried as adults.

In the Sayreville case, the defendants are accused of attacking four freshman teammates over a period of 10 days in September, beginning just after the team’s second game. Victims and witnesses have said the older players would shut off the lights and blare music, then surround and pin a younger player, sometimes groping his genitals, and in some cases, kicking him or penetrating him from behind with a finger. Three of the seven defendants are charged with multiple counts including aggravated sexual assault and criminal sexual contact; four others face various counts including aggravated assault and conspiracy.

Despite the downright creepy and disgusting nature of this alleged hazing, trying the offenders as juveniles will benefit both the defendants and the victims.

Sayreville superintendent Richard Labbe talks to the press in what has become a national headline-making story.

First of all, punishments in family court are typically far less harsh than those in criminal court and tend to focus more on rehabilitation than retribution — something the adult criminal justice system in America is not necessarily built to do.

Second, juvenile records are not made public and defendants are not named, shielding them from much of the publicity that could be expected to surround such a prominent case if they were tried as adults. Juvenile records are not permanent, either, so these offenders can have a shot at a normal adult life after this. More importantly, the proceedings are not open to the public, which greatly helps shield the victims who might have to testify from any further embarrassment or harassment.

Third, and perhaps more cynical, is that juvenile court might be an easier arena for the prosecutors to earn a victory. The case hinges on the testimony of high school freshman who might not hold up well during a cross-examination by an experienced defense attorney. The prosecutors do not want to lose this one in open court.

Finally, a judge in family court has more flexibility and creativity in sentencing to focus on helping both the victims and the offenders.

Ultimately, we have a sad situation for everyone involved. It is mind boggling (and bottling) that teenagers still feel the need to haze teammates in 2014. I would have hoped society had progressed past this outdated mode of “team bonding.” However, in this situation, unlike in Steubenville, it appears that the prosecutors made the right call in trying the defendants as juveniles.

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