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St. James is a good example of why today's juvenile justice system should be reformed

August 5, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
Forty-six years ago last week, a "brilliant" 15-year-old boy in Texas named James Wolcott shot dead his father, his mother, and his 17-year-old sister. He was arrested, charged as an adult with felony murder, but was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity. The contributing factors: paranoid schizophrenia and an addiction to huffing glue. He also acknowledged irrational hatred for his family. His sister, he said, had a "real bad accent." Acquaintances said he was also angry because his father wouldn't let him go to a peace rally. The boy was committed to a mental hospital. Six years later, he was judged sane and released. Because he had been found not guilty, he was able to inherit his parents' comfortable estate. At that point, he changed his name to James St. James and vanished from the public eye.

Last week, a reporter for The Georgetown, Texas Advocate newspaper tracked down that boy and wrote a story about what he had done with his life since. Professor James David St. James is an award-winning psychology professor at Millikin University in Illinois. College administrators apparently didn't know of St. James's background, but are standing by the professor: "Millikin University has only recently been made aware of Dr. St. James' past. Given the traumatic experiences of his childhood, Dr. St. James' efforts to rebuild his life and obtain a successful professional career have been remarkable," Millikin officials said in a statement according to the American-Statesman."

The story has been published in newspapers all over the world, so St. James's privacy is effectively blown. Comments in online forums are predictably outraged and, occasionally, rabid. They range from "hang him!" to "once a murderer, always a murderer" to "why is this killer teaching our children?" to "he served his time" to "leave the man alone." One rather revealing comment at The Daily Mail website said that if this story is true, there must be something wrong with the world. How could it be true that the cold-blooded killer of his parents had gone 46 years without committing another crime and has become a respected member of society? The story offended his rather black and white vision of the world where criminals are supposed to be evil and good people are good and there are no shades of gray.

Personally, I'm in the "leave the man alone" camp. I have often said that our juvenile justice system ought to be geared more towards rehabilitation than punishment. A teenager is not an adult and should not be treated like an adult by the justice system. No matter how brilliant he was, young James Wolcott's brain would not have been fully mature at the age of 15. He would have been less able to control his impulses, far less able to make rational decisions. In his case, the problems of adolescence were magnified by a drug addiction and apparent mental illness. That does not excuse the killing of his family, of course, but I think they are mitigating factors. His later success is a good example of what most professionals know, that teenagers are far more amenable to rehabilitation than are adults. Given a chance, the vast majority of juvenile offenders grow out of illegal behavior and are not criminals as adults.

St. James has helped numerous students and is well-liked and well-respected by them. If he had committed the same crime today, chances are excellent that he would have been locked up for 30 years to life and wouldn't have had a chance of parole until he was in his 50s, something that clearly wouldn't have done much good in his case. I would point to St. James as an example of why it is a bad idea to give such harsh sentences to kids as young as 11 who commit serious crimes.

 
 

Article Comments

(8)

VictimsFamilyMembers

Aug-24-13 8:07 AM

We are a national organization of murder victims families of those killed by teens. Obviously this story is one of great concern. While relieved to hear that the outcome has been a safe one, apparently (though are ALL the facts really known?), it is a scary one. Many such "early releases" do not end nearly so well. Our legal bureaucracies do have their workings and we watch them with great interest to see if it has worked well. Still, reading this story makes me think only of those that were murdered. How have they been remembered? How have they been honored? What would Dr St James say about them today, now that this is public? Will he turn this into an opportunity to help prevent future such tragedies? Would he work to help victims families like ours? ****teenkillers****

MattRothchild

Aug-07-13 9:25 AM

Is it just me, or have people become far more punitive in their mindsets? Is it because they've seen so many miscarriages of what they consider "justice" that they feel desperate to make sure "justice"--at least what they view as justice--gets done in every future situation?

Is it because people are becoming so frustrated that things in the world just don't go their way often enough, so they want to take it out on others--anybody--who represent the forces that cause things not to go their way?

MattRothchild

Aug-07-13 9:22 AM

"I don't think it's either just or effective to ruin the lives of dozens more young people in the name of "better safe than sorry" or "if it prevents one crime, it's worth it.""

So much I could say about this...so applicible to so many realms...

AndreaJohnson

Aug-07-13 8:59 AM

Again, kids are not adults and should not be treated like or sentenced like adults by the justice system.

locomotive

Aug-07-13 6:33 AM

"This wasn't a kid who experimented with drugs, stole a car, burglarized a home, or even someone who committed an armed robbery. This was a kid that killed people - family members - in cold blood."

Agreed.

angeR69

Aug-07-13 2:39 AM

This wasn't a kid who experimented with drugs, stole a car, burglarized a home, or even someone who committed an armed robbery. This was a kid that killed people - family members - in cold blood. There were no mitigating factors... no history of abuse.

Insane? Regardless of guilt or innocence due to mental state, this is someone who should have been separated from society for a very long time, and the courts that released him back into society took a huge gamble with the lives of those with whom he would later come into contact.

I find it hard to believe that anyone could be "cured" at all from a psychosis severe enough to drive him to murder, let alone to be cured within the span of 6 years. It makes you wonder whether St. James was ever actually insane, or just a clever defense tactic. The icing on the cake was the estate.

Has he earned his redemption over the course of the last 46 years? Possibly so. But he never should have been released in the first place.

AndreaJohnson

Aug-06-13 4:47 PM

You don't. However, most studies show juvenile recidivism is low compared to adults. Treatment is effective. Our current system is geared towards punishment and "better safe than sorry," which catches far too many people in a great dragnet and effectively destroys their lives even if they do get out of prison before middle age. Even if there are a few rotten apples in the bunch, I don't think it's either just or effective to ruin the lives of dozens more young people in the name of "better safe than sorry" or "if it prevents one crime, it's worth it." The stigma prevents them from getting a decent place to live or work or do much of anything to rebuild their lives. I see it as trampling on civil liberties, which will eventually effect society at large.

MattRothchild

Aug-06-13 1:35 PM

An interesting commentary on the concept of mercy. Problem is, how do you know who to be merciful toward because they'll make something of it and those to lock up and throw away the key because they'd ultimately waste it?

 
 

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