Age not always a deciding factor in crime

Many of the juveniles in corrections centers indeed are children who made unwise decisions and should not be treated as hardened criminals. But a few are as violent, ruthless and cunning as any adult felon.

Last week, prosecutors in Cleveland charged 43 members of a gang that operated at a juvenile detention center in that city. Those charged with various crimes, including racketeering, are members of the “Heartless Felons.”

All are ages 15 to 17.

They are accused of crimes including assault, rioting, conspiracy, robbery, extortion, kidnapping and theft. It appears they conducted a reign of terror over other juveniles at the center, and perhaps over some guards. Several staff members were assaulted by gang members.

Many of them thought they could get away with it because of their ages. Gang members “believed they could intimidate and assault other residents or detention officers because those offenses would be charged, by law, as inconsequential misdemeanors resulting in no more court-imposed punishment,” a prosecutor explained.

This is nothing new. It happens in many juvenile detention centers, though not to the organized extent alleged in Cleveland.

One reason the old juvenile detention facility in Salem, W.Va., was closed was that older inmates were terrorizing some children there, and sometimes assaulting guards.

Clearly, treating all offenders under 18 years of age as “children” is ridiculous. Mandating juveniles be treated with kid gloves regardless of their crimes is equally absurd. Some of these “children” could teach adult convicts lessons in viciousness.

If convicted, those involved in the “Heartless Felons” gang should be punished severely.

But the mere fact they expected their ages would let them get away with a brutal scheme should prompt legislators, in consultation with judges, to consider changes in juvenile crime laws.