Was justice served in Phoebe Prince case?

By Edward Stern J.D.
July 15th, 2011

What is justice? This question has been the basis of a debate since the conclusion of the cases resulting from the harassment and suicide of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Mass. This case has been used to support the need for the new anti-bullying law in Massachusetts (see “In Wake of Suicides, Anti-Bullying Bill Passed,” New England Psychologist, June 2010). Bullying deals with persistent or unreasonable hurtful acts against another of unequal power.

The six defendants faced different charges. The charges were begun under a district attorney who was no longer in office at the time of the trial. According to The Associated Press, dated May 12, 2011, three of the defendants “admitted to sufficient facts to misdemeanor charges in the bullying of Phoebe Prince, a freshman at South Hadley High School who hanged herself in Jan. 2010.” It is further reported that “Prince…was hounded by five teens after she briefly dated two boys.” The court agreement, which was announced as supported by Prince’s family “continued (the charges) without a finding and will be dismissed if they (the three defendants) successfully complete their probations.” Two defendants were ordered to complete 100 hours of community service to help at risk or underprivileged youths and the third defendant was ordered to complete 50 hours and was asked by Prince’s family to voluntarily complete an additional 50 hours.

Two other defendants finalized similar deals with prosecutors and a statutory rape charge was dropped against a sixth defendant.

The decision caused an immediate outcry that the punishment was insufficient, given the harm and the apparent intensity of the harassment.

Criminal law is established by the state to forbid conduct, which the state believes is detrimental to the common good. The state brings the charges and establishes the punishments. The bringing and concluding of a criminal case does not preclude individual, alleged victims from suing defendants in civil actions, usually in tort, for money damages (e.g. assault and battery, trespass, defamation, etc.).

To get back to the original question of “What is Justice?” there should probably be a more complete discussion of the purpose of punishment. Is punishment administered to deter the defendant or others from repeating the conduct or actions in the future? Those in favor of a harsher punishment in this case cite this purpose as their justification.

Is punishment administered to treat or rehabilitate the defendant, to educate the defendant or the public or to get retribution for society? Or, is it to get atonement for the defendant or to reintegrate that individual back into society or to isolate the defendant? Does punishment serve some other purpose?

Depending on one’s belief of the purpose of punishment there might be a different outcome at sentencing. Perhaps “justice” is not actually the outcome. Different judges could provide different sentencing in similar situations depending on their philosophies. Justice may be the ability of the legal system to provide a fair process within a range of possible outcomes.

A case such as this one is complicated for many reasons. The lack of age and maturity of the defendants leave many issues in a confusing state. For instance, why treat the defendants similarly? Did they all do the same acts? Did they all have the same intent? What role did peer pressure play in this affair? Were there instigators? Who were the leaders and who were the followers? At a time in life where the brain is not fully developed, what is the best way to provide young people the ability to internalize appropriate behavior? Where were the adults?

Some parents or school teachers or administrators probably had awareness of what was occurring even if they were not totally aware of the extent of the emotional harm which happened in this awful tragedy. Adults need to more fully appreciate their position as role models in good and bad situations. Doing nothing can be a statement. Acts of bullying, and other acts as well, require three elements: the inclination to commit the acts, the means to commit the acts and the opportunity to commit the acts. Only one of these three elements needs to be removed for an act not to occur.

Where were the other students in the school? Even the non-participants probably knew the participants and the events involving the new girl who came to the school and had dated the older boys resulting in the local girls’ jealousy and the terrible responses. What was on the Internet? Today, with all the new technology there may have been discussion or pictures on the Internet.

Even if the case is over in the court, the story is probably not done. There may be grounds for civil suits. In 10 or 20 years, someone may look at these defendants and decide whether they learned the lessons that the adults in this situation had been unable to convey to them. Will these defendants be able to look at future situations and see how they would feel if they were the object of this inappropriate conduct? If maturity is accepting personal responsibility for your actions and having the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes and needs, will these defendants have matured?

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