Debt to society better repaid by rehabilitation

By By Spencer Merrick

By Spencer Merrick

On Jan. 21, Ricky Angilau, 16, a student of Kearns High School, agreed to meet with another Kearns student about two blocks away from the school to settle an ongoing dispute. With a crowd gathered around, the two began fistfighting, and when Angilau got tired, police say he pulled out a gun, fired a few times in the air, and then fatally shot a bystander, Esteban Manuel Saidi.

Following standard procedure, Angilau will be tried as an adult, which means he could receive a sentence of 15 years to life in prison. In prison, he will not be grouped with other minors. He will get the same treatment and follow the same rules as adults.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Lohra Miller, in a public discussion on the case, said, “A person who commits an adult crime is going to do adult time.”

Though that sounds catchy and convincing, it strikes me as a rash way to rule on the life of a kid. That statement alone shows that he won’t be charged as an adult as a means of keeping him off the streets and keeping others safe, but rather so he can pay his debt back to society, a myth we so often repeat.

That debt, the life of 16-year-old Saidi, will never be paid back. The emotional pain that Angilau caused Saidi’s family is no doubt beyond compare and irreparable. Saidi’s life is lost forever. But maybe there’s still hope for Angilau’s.

I could never argue that because Angilau is 16, he didn’t know what he was doing. His age isn’t all that different from many students at the U. Nor could I ever argue that a crime such as his should ever go unpunished, or that the public safety should ever be at greater risk as we try to rehabilitate a criminal.

I think we need to ask ourselves what the underlying morals are that guided our decision to try Angilau as an adult. Are we doing it as a safety procedure, or for retribution? Surely he deserves endless years of incarceration. But if we’re talking in terms of what he deserves, technically he deserves death, doesn’t he? Isn’t that what he gave?

Stanley “Tookie” Williams, co-founder of the Crips street gang, was imprisoned and later put on death row for the murders of four people in two separate robbery attempts. The gang he helped found still exists today, and is just as violent. Many copycat gangs have since sprung up. Surely, if any man deserved death, it was Williams.

However, after years in prison, he had what he called a “spiritual revival,” and while still serving time, wrote several popular children’s books, all part of a series called Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence. He was paying his debt to society, so to speak. A jury later decided that the debt was to be paid with his life, and he was executed in December 2005.

The ruling was just, but it wasn’t right. Passions and resentment, however warranted, blinded the jury’s vision. Jury members weren’t willing to see that an influential gang founder writing against gang violence through children’s books was making society far safer than a dead inmate ever could.

Many agree that trying Angilau as an adult would send a warning message to other youths involved in gangs, in the same way that giving Williams the death sentence warned violent criminals. But there are no statistics that prove that these so-called scare tactics in any way curb the crime rate. That was proven through the extremely unsuccessful War on Drugs. As prison terms got lengthier and as punishments got harsher, drug possession and distribution went up, according to 1999 FBI reports.

How do we expect Angilau to pay his debt back to society in a prison cell? What positive influence could he possibly have? None, unless you consider it positive to allow a 16-year-old to attend a tax-funded university of professional drug-dealers and violent criminals. With that logic, he’ll be a much greater threat to society after having spent half of his life in prison than after having spent fewer years in treatment and rehabilitation.

Although current youth centers aren’t exactly ideal, these programs would be infinitely more effective than imprisonment among experienced adults. To be safe, to curb gang violence and to save at least one life in this scenario, Angilau and other youths like him should receive rehabilitation, not retribution.

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