Last week, a 10-year-old boy in Riverside, Calif., who was charged with his father’s murder said he did it to stop the daily abuse with which he, his brothers, sisters and stepmother were living.
The child told a police detective that he took a .357 magnum from a closet, approached his sleeping father, shot him in the head and hid the gun under his bed.
Such occurrences aren’t as rare as we’d wish them to be. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1,280 juveniles were arrested for murder and non-negligent manslaughter in 2008. And 2.1 million children under age 18 were arrested for crimes such as forcible rape, property theft or weapon and drug violations that year.
In many respects, the Riverside boy is very different from others in this awful peer group. For one, he is white. Most juvenile offenders are minorities. And he is very young: The bulk of murders involving juvenile offenders are committed by 14- to 17-year-olds. Finally, most kids who take another person’s life target an acquaintance or a stranger — a family member is usually the least likely victim.
But this child’s most distinguishing characteristic is that he has an extremely high-profile story.
You see, the boy I’ve been telling you about is not just another example of how a chaotic home life, familial violence and alcohol abuse can put kids on track for lifetimes of hopelessness and run-ins with the law.
This child is the son of Jeffrey R. Hall, the 32-year-old leader of the Riverside chapter of the National Socialist Movement, a Third Reich-fetish group that in the last two decades has grown into the nation’s largest neo-Nazi party.
Jeff Hall was being shadowed by a New York Times reporter for an in-depth article about the everyday, suburban family lives of members of these types of extremist movements.
The Hall family home was a gathering spot for NSM members who participate in violent demonstrations, many times wearing Nazi military uniforms. White and male supremacy was openly embraced, and guns, ammunition and other weapons were unlocked and easily accessible in several areas of what was described as a squalid home.
Court documents presented at the boy’s detention hearing said that he, his younger siblings and stepmother were regularly beaten by Jeff Hall, who was prone to out-of-control rants. The boy, already embroiled in a custody struggle between his biological mother and father, which included allegations of sexual abuse, told detectives he feared his father was having an extramarital relationship and his family would soon be torn apart again.
Factors such as family instability, exposure to an extremist and violent subculture, varying aspects of poverty, and a child’s intrinsic innocence are the same exact triggers that push juveniles into crime. We just don’t get the opportunity to feel sorry for them if their life circumstances are less shocking — and more ghetto or barrio — than those of the Hall family.
“(Unlike in this case) certain stories about young kids committing extreme crimes are sensationalized, which only adds to the public’s perceptions of juvenile justice as punishment for bad seeds,” said Irene Sullivan, an elected judge in Florida’s Unified Family Court and author of “Raised by the Courts: One Judge’s Insight into Juvenile Justice.” “Even people in professional circles believe that the younger the child is, the worse that kid must be. The mindset is that some kids are born bad.”
Sullivan is a passionate critic of the increasing public perception that juvenile offenders are lost causes who, in a time of collapsing budgets, should be treated like hardened adult criminals — “the ‘tail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em’ method” — instead of through compassionate, but sometimes costly, youth rehabilitation efforts.
“Politicians and the public are usually not sympathetic to juvenile offenders,” Sullivan told me. “They don’t understand that children didn’t get there because they were bad kids, but because they’re kids in bad circumstances.”
That’s certainly an easy distinction to make in the case of Jeff Hall’s 10-year-old son. But this is exactly why — despite his middle-class suburban home, white skin and young age — he is a perfect example of how millions of American children become violent juvenile criminals.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.