Young park attackers must do hard time

by Jim Longworth

In 2003 Harpers magazine Editor Bill Wasik engineered the first flash mob by assembling throngs of people at Macy’s to play a practical joke on an unsuspecting rug salesman. Three years later, a flash mob gathered for some spontaneous dancing at a London disco. And, in 2008, thousands of Twitter-driven young people staged an international pillow fight. That was then and this is now. What had been a conduit for facilitating harmless fun has turned into a weapon for committing group crimes.

Within the past few months, street mobs have burglarized businesses and terrorized bystanders in cities across America. A mob recently swarmed a clothing store in Washington DC and took $20,000 worth of merchandise. In Las Vegas, 20 teens robbed a convenience store. “It became a feeding frenzy,” the store owner told KLAS-TV. Meanwhile, in Chicago last month, hastily assembled mobs committed four robberies within a 10-minute span, and managed to drag a man into the street, and beat him senseless just for the fun of it. In St. Paul, Minn., a BP gas station was overrun by 20 mobbers who assaulted the attendant. And, last week, Mitchell Sommers, executive director of the Community Theatre of Greensboro, told WFMY News that he was attacked in Center City Park as “hundreds” of people rushed into the park all at once. It should be noted that Greensboro Police are not characterizing the Center City assault as a flash-mob incident, but they do admit that kids are using social media these days to plan gatherings and then turn them into violence.

Actual flash-mob incidents are orchestrated through facebook and twitter communications, and, most of the time the perpetrators go unpunished. That’s because flash mobs specialize in split second timing. They swarm in, commit the crime, and swarm out before they can be identified, and before police can reach the scene.

It is a growing and disturbing trend. The National Retail Federation surveyed 129 retailers and found that 95 percent had been victimized by organized criminals in the past year. The question is, Why? Scott Decker, professor of criminology at Arizona State University told, “Young people are risk-takers. They do things in groups far more than adults do. A medium like Twitter plays into the characteristics of young persons’ behavior.” Decker also observed that with flashmobbers, public recognition trumps the risk of getting caught. “Getting caught on security cameras is a thrill, not a threat to kids who like to see themselves on YouTube. It’s a way of bragging. Not only can you show your friends, you can show the whole world.”

I’m not disputing Decker’s thesis, but I also believe there is another explanation. Simply stated, teens do the crime because they don’t think they’ll do the time. As was mentioned previously, most of these attacks happen so quickly that the perpetrators can’t be identified. But here in North Carolina, for those who are under the age of 16, they also know that the law is on their side. Even if caught and convicted of mob robbery or assault, they will probably escape with probation or, at most, a little time in a juvenile facility.

That’s why juvenile justice reform measures of the past several decades didn’t go far enough. To date, only 23 states will try a child of any age as an adult, depending on the crime. But due to recent events, every state should give more consideration to the severity of the offense, and less to the age of the offender. Sure, such reform must be tempered by logic and compassion. No one wants an 8-year-old boy to be thrown into prison for shooting another kid with a BB gun. But 13-, 14- and 15-yearolds are old enough to know that it is wrong to rob in a mob, or bang in a gang. No one knows for certain the exact ages of Sommers’ assailants, but if caught, they should do hard time, and do it as adults.

Social workers and youth advocates will cite statistics about how kids put in prison end up having a high rate of recidivism, and that counseling and rehab are more effective ways of dealing with youthful offenders. But proponents of trying kids as adults say today’s teens are more sophisticated and more dangerous. Point well taken. Just remember that fists, not pillows were thrown in Center City Park last week. But laws won’t be changed until everyone on both sides of the debate admits that beating people and robbing stores is not merely a youthful indiscretion.

One observer explained the recent surge in mob crimes by saying that kids just have too much time on their hands. If that’s the case, then let them spend it in prison, not in the park.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).