Picture yourself as a 15-year-old from Vancouver, Washington hanging out with your friends on Labor Day weekend. Someone gets the bright idea to buy a firework and film someone throwing it over a cliff. The girls in your group giggle and encourage you to do it. You assume the firework will light up and fizzle out, but instead, it creates one of the biggest forest fires in the history of the country.
As a passerby, this action might appear to be done out of malice and rebellion, but if we don’t take into consideration how heavily adolescents are influenced by their peers, then we fail to get a complete perspective of what happened.
The fire started in Eagle Creek on September 2, 2017 before spreading throughout the Columbia Gorge and reaching over 36,000 acres. About 400 homes were evacuated, and much-loved hiking trails and views were utterly destroyed. Many have demanded that the boy who started it face adult consequences in the form of imprisonment. However, they speak from a space of loss and anger, when in reality, sentencing a teenager to the same punishment as what an adult would face is not ethical. One would not send a 10-year-old to prison for creating a forest fire; a 15-year-old is still a child. Teenagers are still learning how to make decisions, and although they should be more mature than 10-year-olds, the frontal lobe of their brain that controls decision making isn’t fully developed.
Under Oregon’s Measure 11, arson of the first and second degree is a crime punishable with seven-and-a-half years in prison. While it’s unlikely that the boy would be charged or convicted of either of these, he could be charged with reckless burning resulting in up to five years in prison and a heavy fine, or he could be charged with criminal mischief that could result in community service and a fine. Jill Powers, a former civil defense attorney, said that at the beginning of a case, the opposing lawyer charges the defendant with as much as possible. As the case continues, the charges are whittled down to what can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Tessa Woodyard moved to Portland from Corbett, Oregon at the beginning of August. Corbett was in the line of fire (literally), and yet Woodyard still says, “I don’t think that he deserves to go to jail.” Instead of being charged with arson, the 15-year-old boy should be charged with criminal mischief. To convict someone of arson, there needs to be proof of aggravating factors which means that the person’s intention was to hurt someone or something. With the Eagle Creek fire, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Although this boy deserves to receive punishment, he doesn’t deserve to have his whole future ruined by facing five or more years in prison. If he were convicted with arson, he would be 20 or older when released from prison and would lose many opportunities that have been offered to his peers—such as work experience and getting into a good college to lay the foundation for his future career—for a fire he most likely didn’t mean to create.
Unless this teenager’s intent was to set the scenic Columbia Gorge on fire, destroy picturesque views, threaten the safety of Labor Day weekend hikers and campers, and demolish hundreds of homes, then he does not deserve time in prison. Teenagers are inclined to make bad decisions and not taking that into consideration when punishing them for their actions is unfairly harsh.