There is a mistaken belief in Amsterdam and the town of Florida that we have lost two children. In reality we may have lost four children — the two who were murdered, Paul Damphier and Jonathan DeJesus, and the two who allegedly killed them, Matthew Phelps and Anthony Brasmiester.
The first two can never come back. But the other two, if tried and convicted as adults and sent to prison, may be lost forever as far as being rehabilitated and becoming responsible adults is concerned.
Many people have expressed the desire that the two alleged killers be put away for life. Some, on one boy’s Facebook page, have expressed the hope that they get raped every day in prison and have made other vile comments that make one realize violence lies just below the surface in many of us.
There is no question that Phelps and Brasmiester, if guilty, should be locked up for a long time. But where and for how long? Another question, already answered in the affirmative by Montgomery County District Attorney Jed Conboy, is: Should they be tried as adults?
There is something dubious about trying children and teens as adults. The fact is, no matter what they do, children and teens are not adults. Their brains are not yet fully developed. We recognize that they are not adults by not allowing them to drink, vote, marry, serve in Congress and so on until they reach a certain age.
As John Lash of Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., has stated on the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange website, “… kids by their nature are less culpable and more malleable than adults, and consequently should be treated in a different way.” That means that they cannot be held to the same level of accountability as adults. It also means that they are much more likely than adults to be rehabilitated.
Again, that does not mean they should not be locked up for a long time. What it means is that they should not be locked up in a facility with adults and that, wherever they are sent, efforts should be made to rehabilitate them, not just to punish them.
Another mistaken belief — which I have heard repeated several times in the past few weeks — is that if kids in Amsterdam had something to do, this murder would not have taken place.
While it would not hurt for teens in Amsterdam to have more activities, it is a slur on the city and the several thousand teens here who have never killed anyone to say there is nothing to do here or that lack of something to do led to this murder.
Plenty to do
There is a lot for kids to do in Amsterdam. The city has several baseball diamonds, tennis courts, basketball courts and a municipal pool. We have an extensive school sports program as well as non-school programs like the Little Giants and the Amsterdam Youth Soccer Club. We have a library with regular books, audio books, computers, computer classes and videos.
We have a chess club that meets twice a week. We have Boy Scouts, 4-H and several church-related youth groups. We have a hiking and biking trail and a river that I see teens fishing in all the time. We have three impressive parks — Riverlink, Veterans’ Field and Shuttleworth — as well as several smaller parks.
We don’t know if these two boys killed the two other boys, but if they did, logic dictates that it had nothing to do with their not having anything to do in Amsterdam.
One thing that does enable kids to kill kids, although it does not explain why, is easy access to a gun. I am not a fan of gun control, but I believe strongly that if you own guns, you have a responsibility to keep them locked in a gun safe which children cannot access. Even teens who have been taught gun safety and who go hunting regularly should not have access to guns unless they are under the supervision of responsible adults.
The fact remains, however, that neither easy access to a gun nor lack of activities in Amsterdam, or any other reason, can explain, justify or mitigate this tragedy. Nor does the age of the alleged perpetrators.
However, their age does require that if they are convicted, we make an attempt to rehabilitate them. Although young offenders have a better chance at rehabilitation than do adults, it doesn’t always work. Still, if we don’t at least try, then we must face the fact that we will lose four teens in Amsterdam, not just two.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.