Sixteen-year-old Richard unexpectedly finds himself in legal hot water after setting fire to Sasha, a genderqueer teen, in a poorly conceived adolescent prank gone terribly wrong. Under a California law known as Proposition 21, prosecutors have the unilateral power to try underage offenders as adults in cases involving violent crime, and this is exactly what happens to Richard. He is treated as an adult for committing a crime as an adolescent, and The 57 Bus examines the implications of this common legal practice. Through the representation of Richard and his crime, Slater at once condemns the discrimination that lead to the assault while also advocating for Richard’s right to be tried as an adolescent. Ultimately, Slater argues that adolescent brains do not operate the same as adult brains, thus, she posits, adolescents should not be tried as adults within a court of law.
Slater contends that the juvenile brain develops in such a way that teenagers often behave “impulsively,” rendering sound decision-making difficult. According to Slater, as the human brain develops during adolescence, it is “busily lining important neural pathways with a fatty sheath called myelin.” This myelin allows messages—thoughts, actions, interpretations and the like—to travel throughout the brain by way of neurological synapses, making thought processes faster. The prefrontal cortex, “the part of the brain responsible for reason, planning, and deliberation,” is the last part of the brain myelinated, and is typically not fully myelinated until a juvenile reaches their early twenties. As such, the adolescent brain requires more time to make sound, reasonable decisions compared to an adult brain. Additionally, Slater claims that the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotional signals, becomes increasingly sensitive during puberty. The limbic system informs one’s responses to stimuli, including “Avoid! Investigate! Eat! Fight! Flirt!” According to Slater, this hyperactive system is “one reason teenagers become both more emotional and more interested in having new and intense experiences.” Slater points out that a teenager’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and their overly stimulated limbic system often combines into what psychologists refer to as “hot cognition.” Hot cognition assumes that when faced with new or stressful situations, teenagers often think with their limbic system rather than their prefrontal cortex, and the resulting actions can be catastrophic. Furthermore, Slater continues, “the presence of peers is one of the things that raises the emotional stakes,” making teens more likely to seek out risky behavior “without pausing to consider the consequences.” Neurologically speaking, a teenage brain does not process stimuli in the same way that an adult brain does, which suggests that adolescents should be held to a different set of legal consequences.
Indeed, Richard does show symptoms of “hot cognition” during Sasha’s assault, which implies that his decision-making abilities are underdeveloped. During Sasha’s attack on Oakland bus number 57, surveillance cameras show that Richard is in fact influenced by another youth—Richard’s friend Jamal points at Sasha and whispers, “Look at this dude,” before handing Richard the lighter. Presumably, without the influence of Jamal, Richard’s bullying of Sasha would not have involved the lighter. After Richard flicks the lighter near Sasha’s skirt and the fabric fails to hold a flame, Jamal then encourages Richard to continue flicking the lighter three more times. “Do it,” Jamal urges. Even if the lighter had been Richard’s idea, he may have simply given up after the first failed attempt without Jamal’s influence. Lastly, once Sasha’s skirt does catch fire, Richard is immediately remorseful. While “Jamal howls with laughter,” Richard jumps off the bus but instantly begins to chase after it, trying to see if Sasha is okay. Richard’s bullying of Sasha is senseless and cruel, yet his subsequent guilt and “sadness” suggests that he is not an inherently criminal young man. Instead, Slater argues, Richard’s actions are the result of peer pressure and his own “hot cognition,” which in turn leads to poor decision making.
Furthermore, Richard’s age has important implications once he is arrested, and it continues to work against him while he is in police custody. According to Slater, “more than 90 percent of juveniles who are interrogated by police don’t wait to talk to an attorney and don’t understand the rights the police have read to them.” Richard is no different, and the police question him for several minutes before even reading him his rights. Richard is open and forthcoming with investigators, even though this is not legally advisable, and he even admits that he is “homophobic” and “doesn’t like gay people.” It is later discovered that Richard has poor understanding of the word “homophobia” and believes it means that “he isn’t gay.” Of course, Richard’s misunderstanding further incriminates him, and he is ultimately charged with two hate crimes. According to a Boston-based study on hate crimes, Slater maintains, most hate crimes are not committed by organized hate groups. Rather, an overwhelming number of hate crimes are perpetrated by “young people ‘looking for some fun’ at the expense of someone they regard as lower status.” Richard’s attack on Sasha occurs under similar circumstances, and this, coupled with Richard’s poor understanding and his “hot cognition,” is precisely why Slater argues against prosecuting Richard as an adult. If Richard’s brain is only able to process information and respond to stimuli as an adolescent, then he should be treated as such within a court of law.
Adolescent Crime vs. Adult Crime ThemeTracker
Adolescent Crime vs. Adult Crime Quotes in The 57 Bus
That’s how everyone knew Richard—as the funny one, the one who made people smile. He pulled pranks like putting ketchup on people’s faces while they slept or ambushing them with water balloons when they’d just woken up. He would do anything for a laugh—put on one of his female cousin’s sexy cropped sweaters, for example, or post a selfie on Instagram of himself dressed in a bra and a wig, gazing into the bathroom mirror with a sultry expression. I’m a THOT for Halloween, the caption explained.
“Stop right here, and for a moment imagine yourself forced to submit to being handcuffed and see what kind of feelings will be aroused in you,” a Chicago lawyer named John P. Altgeld wrote in an 1884 book called Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims. Arguing that “submission to that one act of degradation prepares many a young man for a career of crime,” he took the reader through the experience of a youthful offender—which began with the accused, usually arrested for vagrancy or disorderly conduct, spending the night in the police station among older, more vicious criminals. He compared the criminal justice system to “a great mill which, somehow or other, supplies its own grist, a maelstrom with draws from the outside, and then keeps its victims moving in a circle until swallowed in the vortex.”
“A super-predator is a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim without giving it a second thought,” he explained. And he warned that the numbers of these “fatherless, Godless, and jobless” teens were growing. By the mid-2000s, he predicted, their numbers would double or even triple, unleashing a tidal wave of violence across the nation. “As many as half of these juvenile super-predators could be young black males,” Dilulio wrote in 1996 article entitled “My Black Crime Problem, and Ours.”
“I am not a thug, gangster, hoodlum, nor monster. Im a young African American male who’s made a terrible mistake. Not only did I hurt you but I hurt your family & friends and also my family & friends for I have brought shame to them and our country and I shall be punished which is going to be hard for me because I’m not made to be incarcerated.”
Donald Williams Jr., an African American freshman at San Jose Sate University, had been relentlessly bullied by the white students he lived with a four-bedroom dormitory suite. The white kids, also freshmen, had insisted on calling Williams “three-fifths,” a reference to the clause in the original US Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person when determining population for representation in Congress. They clamped a bike lock around his neck and claimed to have lost the key. They wrote Nigger on a whiteboard and draped a Confederate flag over a cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley in suite’s living room. They locked him in his room. And they claimed it was all just a series of good-natured pranks. In the end, three eighteen-year-old white students were expelled for what they did to Williams, and a seventeen-year-old was suspended. The three who were expelled were also charged in criminal court. The charge: misdemeanor battery with a hate-crime enhancement, which carried a maximum penalty of a year and a half in county jail. A jury eventually convicted all three of battery but acquitted one of the students of the hate-crime charge and deadlocked the others.
“RJ isn’t a guarantee of leniency,” Baliga cautioned. “It’s about dispensing with punitiveness for its own sake and trying to produce an outcome that will be more healing for everyone involved.”
Still, Baliga knew that there was little hope of diverting Richard from the criminal justice system entirely. “Given the severity of the harm to Sasha, we didn’t expect that the DA would allow the case to be diverted to restorative justice,” she said.
But if anyone seemed right for restorative justice, it was these two families, who had already expressed compassion for one another. “They were perfect candidates for this dialogue,” she said. “All of them were such gorgeously enlightened, beautiful people.”
“We do not understand your actions,” Debbie went on. “But we also think that hatred only leads to more hatred and anger. We don’t want you to come out of prison full of hate. Following the incident, communities near and far affirmed Sasha’s—and everyone’s—right to not be harassed or hurt or bullied for how they dress, or whether they are gay or trans or agender. We truly hope that you will gain some understanding and empathy in the years to come. Maybe sometime in the future you will be the one coming to the aid of someone being bullied.”
“From the start we have been opposed to Richard’s being tried as an adult,” he said. “His actions appear to have been impulsive, immature, and unpremeditated. He did make a big mistake and recognizes that. He asked for our forgiveness.” Karl’s voice broke. “Sasha, Debbie, and I have forgiven Richard,” he whispered. “We hope the state will focus more on preparing him for the world beyond incarceration than on punishing him.”