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November 9, 2007

Playing with Matches

smokey.jpgCalifornia authorities have determined that one of last month’s California wildfires – one which destroyed 21 homes and injured several people in the Los Angeles area – was accidentally started by a 10-year-old boy playing with matches. Now they have to decide what to do about it, the options including removing him from his parents’ custody, placing him in juvenile detention, and handing his parents a multi-million dollar tab.

The rule of thumb when dealing with juveniles is whether the child understood that his actions were wrong – but it’s not so simple in this case: It’s one thing to understand that playing with matches is wrong, and quite another to anticipate that you might be laying waste to your entire neighborhood.


  1. I don’t follow (in the sense of: I’m not in favor of) sentencing someone based on their understanding of the situation. I believe it should be based on a person’s danger to society. We end up protecting people that are the most ruthlessly destructive (completely opposite of how we deal with animals).

    The only way to keep responsibility alive in the U.S., it seems to me, is to assign some very long, safe community service to this boy.

    I saw the boy and he seems quite innocent, forthright, and just a little surprised. Of course, I want to give him a by. But mustn’t he be the one to face the punishment? If he set his neighbor’s hair on fire, he’d feel repercussions, no?

    The message that if you burn down a city, you’re parents will be punished, is as much incentive as it is a deterrent in this century.

    I understand, I think, that Bill is saying, and I agree, a child is not very likely to think little matches would do what they did; people can barely keep their pipes burning.

    I think his peer community would also feel kinder to him if they saw him doing some public service.

    My thoughts and very mixed feelings.

    Comment by Kevin Andresen — November 13, 2007 @ 4:57 pm

  2. Under California law, he can only be subject to juvenile (criminal/quasi-criminal) penalties if the state can establish that he appreciated the wrongfuless of his acts. The presumption is that a child under 14 cannot. So, the answers to Kevin’s questions — mustn’t he be the one to face the punishment? If he set his neighbor’s hair on fire, he’d feel repercussions, no? — are “Maybe yes, maybe no.” It’s definitely shades of gray.

    Comment by Norm — November 13, 2007 @ 8:18 pm

  3. oops, “you’re” should be “your” in my post. Perhaps if my punctuation is going, I should stop burning the sticks from Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars, inside or out. It was my nature to be very careful with both.

    Comment by Kevin Andresen — November 14, 2007 @ 12:13 am

  4. Blaming the kid is ludicrous. Yeah, maybe his matches started the fire, but literally millions of kids play with matches–should all of them (including myself as a child) be taken from their parents? The blame falls on people who build houses in wildfire-prone zones then blame others when their houses are threatened by fire. If that kid had left the matches alone, some dirt biker would have driven over a piece of flint or something.

    Comment by Carl — November 14, 2007 @ 7:14 am

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