Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Balancing the scales of justice


I have some very mixed feelings about the federal prosecution of the South Carolina teenager accused of plotting to blow up his high school in a suicide attack. Ryan Schallenberger of Chesterfield is facing a charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction after he was found to have ordered ammonium nitrate, the same substance used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He reportedly had made detailed plans for an attack. The Chesterfield County prosecutor, Jay Hodge, said "society requires jail time" for the plot, although in the same breath, he said "the kid needs help." That's the balancing act. Should authorities put the 18-year-old in prison for the rest of his life? That's the sentence he's facing if convicted on the WMD charge, and a guilty verdict would seem likely. Or should the straight-A student, who clearly has exhibited some level of mental illness, receive some mental-health help to see if the demons inside him can be tamed and he can live a productive life? I'm leaning toward the latter. What do you think?

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10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I think some sort of punishment would be in order, I don't think an offense like this should result in a life sentence. With treatment and close monitoring, he could turn around and live a productive life.

Also, he is only 18. Granted, this is an extreme case, but is there anyone among us who didn't do something stupid at 18 that we now look back on with embarrassment?

--Brad Hundt

April 23, 2008 at 2:24 PM  
Blogger Amanda Gillooly said...

Kids act out like this because they've probably been battling depression, anxiety or any number of mental ailments. When I went to the doctor's office at 14 and told him I was depressed he literally laughed at me and said, "You're too young to be depressed."
Given the obvious misunderstanding and stigma of "mental illness," maybe that's the only way he felt he could cope with whatever anger issues he has.
How would society benefit from throwing a straight-A kid into jail for the rest of his life? He may have the potential to change the world and no one would ever know, because they didn't give him a chance.
Sad, sad.

April 23, 2008 at 5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is exactly the type of situation where years later people go, how did they ever consider letting this person back on the streets. When someone violates the rules of society to the point of harming others in particular large numbers of people, they have lost the right to be treated. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. But those that are, in particular after they have proven they would act, should never be allowed on the streets again.
Put another way, would you honestly trust treatment if you had to explain your choice to anyone's parents that were someday hurt by this person? That is the real choice that society is making, this obvious danger to society or his potential right to a better life.
BTW Mr. Hundt, this is not something "stupid", it was the planned attempt for the murder of innocents. Not just an extreme case.

April 23, 2008 at 7:52 PM  
Blogger Scott Beveridge said...

I wouldn't want to be in a place to decide this one.....

April 23, 2008 at 9:40 PM  
Blogger Amanda Gillooly said...

I think I am. I'm sorry, anonymous, but I must ask: Have you ever known anyone with a serious mental illness. I have. And the reason why people years later ask how the senseless crime could have happened, is because no one cared enough, or knew enough, to understand the warning signs of serious mental illness. To make my point again, trying, of course, not to be argumentative or redundant is: there is hope for someone this young. This is not a repeat offender. This is someone who needs serious help. Hey, just my two cents. Take it for what it is. But as always, Brant, thanks for bringing up a subject that is worthy of discussion. I always enjoy reading my friend.

April 23, 2008 at 9:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually I worked with thousands of mental health patients. The result was the opinion that I wrote. None of those people went so far as to prepare to act on a level of violence as wide spread and potentially devastating as this one. But the truth is that it would not matter whether I had or had not worked with the mentally ill previously. The facts of his planning and actions speak for themselves. There are actions that can and should cause you to lose your freedom, the plotting of the murder of hundreds falls into this category. There is no excuse for certain behavior.

April 24, 2008 at 10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Mr. Anonymous,

I know years of watching foreign films have turned me into an evil elitist and robbed me of the proper Manichean worldview, but there needs to be a sense of balance here. He didn't kill anyone. And, as Amanda pointed out, kids act out and do things that are, yes, stupid (in his case, extremely stupid).

Yes, he needs to see the inside of a jail cell. For a while. And he needs intensive treatment. To put him away for the rest of his life seems awfully extreme.

--Brad Hundt

April 24, 2008 at 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Wormie270 said...

You have to ask yourself. . .was there really a crime committed? He bought the ammonium nitrate and he had a plan for attack but he didn't actually do anything. If something would have happened we would ask was there anything we could have done to prevent this. It was prevented so let's get him some help.

Psychologists are always saying that the kid was reaching out for help when tragedies strike such as this. Ok, we stopped him, he's reaching out for help, let's help him.

I personally think a life sentence will cause him to snap and commit sucide.

April 24, 2008 at 12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a tough one. Yes, there should be some sort of reinforcement that actions involve consequences, even if those actions were caused by a mental problem. So I favor some sort of jail time, but not simply at a maximum security prison making license plates or whatever it is they do these days.

This kid should be worked with. However, there's no guarantee that, even if he is treated and responds well, a relapse won't happen. At some point society has to make the decision to bear the cost of treatment, incarceration and consequences. If he is treated and "cured," will society have the resources to monitor him the rest of his life? If not, do we need to feel bad if he does wind up killing others and himself? True, no man is an island, but I think that society can shoulder only so much blame, especially when a substantial effort is made to treat these cases.

April 24, 2008 at 12:46 PM  
Blogger PRIguy said...

I've thought about this one for a while. My first thought was to put him away, but not for life. That does seem a bit harsh, and I'm a huge proponent of corporal and capital punishment. Wormie said it well...no actual crime was committed. He was stopped. He should get some jail time, but when he gets out, perhaps he should spend some lengthy time in a hospital where he could be monitored, and if and when his behavior is acceptable to release him into society then so be it.

It's interesting that mental health has been the hot-button issue. I've been treated for depression. I'm fine now, but I can swear that I've never wanted to blow up buildings or kill anyone. My daughter is autistic and mildly mentally retarded. Ask her if killing is wrong and she'll tell you yes. Ask her if plotting to blow up a school is worthy of jail time and she'll tell you that it is. So I don't buy into the whole "don't be too tough on him, he's reaching out or suffering" thing. He's not stealing hubcaps or spraying graffiti. He was plotting to kill many, many people. No matter your IQ or mental state, that's wrong and punishment needs to be doled out. But I don't think life in prison is the solution.

April 25, 2008 at 6:09 AM  

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