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When the bogeyman is a little girl

By Mel Robbins
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mel Robbins: Girls in stabbing case charged as adults; they should be tried as juveniles
  • She says as a society, we recognize kids' brains, judgment not developed like adults
  • She says high court recognizes this. Girls need mental health help, not prison system
  • Robbins: Case seems like fantasy world run amok. Society should not lock girls away

Editor's note: Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator and legal analyst. Robbins is the founder of Inspire52.com, a positive news website and author of "Stop Saying You're Fine," about managing change. She speaks on leadership around the world and in 2014 was named Outstanding News Talk Radio Host by the Gracie Awards. Follow her on Twitter @melrobbins. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mel Robbins.

(CNN) -- Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, the 12-year-old girls from Waukesha, Wisconsin, who are accused of stabbing their friend 19 times and leaving her for dead, should not be tried as adults. On Monday, Waukesha County prosecutors charged the two in adult court with attempted homicide. Wisconsin should transfer the case to juvenile court and try them as children, because that's what they are.

As a society, in every instance we recognize that children are less than adults and legally we treat them as such. The research on children's brain development and function is so undisputed and compelling that the Supreme Court recently cited it in Graham v. Florida, which prohibits mandatory sentences of life without parole for children; earlier the court discussed adolescent brain science during oral arguments in Roper v. Simmons, which abolished the juvenile death penalty.

Mel Robbins
Mel Robbins

We all agree that the crime in the Wisconsin case is a horrific one. The girls "readily" confessed to the police and laid out the bone-chilling details of their plan and the attack, according to the criminal complaint. The question now is: What do you do with them? If the case is transferred to juvenile court under Wisconsin statutory law, social service and mental health treatment professionals can properly deal with these clearly disturbed girls.

The reality is that eventually they are likely to be released back into society. Which system would do a better job of punishing perpetrators of such a violent crime and preparing them for rehabilitation?

You don't have to be a fan of "Orange Is the New Black" to know in your gut that 60 years in the adult prison system is no place for a little girl who believes that an Internet meme is real and doesn't appear to understand the consequences of her actions. Obviously, stabbing people isn't normal, but psychologists will tell you that believing fantasies are real is age appropriate. Disney makes billions off it. I've got a 9-year-old who somehow still believes Santa is real and a 13-year-old who's afraid some bogeyman lurks under the bed.

Slenderman stabbing case: When can kids understand reality vs. fantasy?

These two 12-year-old girls were apparently so convinced that Slenderman was real, that he was watching them, reading their minds and teleporting, and so desperate to be his proxy that police found them walking along the road on their way to his "mansion in the woods" to go live with him.

Children don't have the judgment, maturity or life experience to drink, drive, consent to sex, work, serve in the military, serve on a jury, marry, sign a contract or live on their own. We spend billions on programs that teach kids drug prevention and sex education because we recognize that adolescence is a vulnerable stage of life.

If we have determined that children are not ready for the rights and responsibilities of adulthood -- that they don't have the capacity to make sound decisions, the maturity to understand consequences or the ability to control their impulses-- how can we justify treating them the same as adults when they commit crimes?

On top of common sense, there's now a decade of incontrovertible evidence of the tremendous change in adolescence in both brain structure and how the brain works. Bottom line: At age 12 your brain is about to go through an intense period of development that will continue into your early 20s. As Ruben Gur, a neuropsychologist at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center writes, "The brain does not cease to mature until the early 20s in those relevant parts that govern impulsivity, judgment, planning for the future, foresight of consequences, and other characteristics that make people morally culpable. ..."

Thankfully, the alleged victim lived. And because the girls accused of this crime are 12, and on the cusp of a developmental brain rewiring, they might also be more responsive to attempts at rehabilitation as they mature into adulthood.

Bicyclist who found stabbed Wisconsin girl: 'Who did that to you?'

I know what you're thinking. "Mel, if it were your 12-year-old who was stabbed, you'd want these kids locked away for life." Actually, you're wrong. Human beings are different from animals. As the mother of a 15-, 13- and 9-year-old, I know all too well just how irrational, impulsive, peer-influenced, all-consumed and lacking in judgment children can be. I also know that good families can have things go horribly wrong and that often it's mental illness that needs to be addressed.

I hope we live in a society that has the maturity to take a deep breath and consider the limitations of children before we lock two little girls away until they are 72.

Opinion: Parents, take heed: 'Slenderman' and more lurk online

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