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Author Topic: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments  (Read 15297 times)

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Offline Jims

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Should kids be tried as adults?

Critics say system is too harsh; some states take hard look at retooling juvenile laws

Sunday, December 2, 2007

By SHARON COHEN
of the Associated Press


Editor's Note: The news stories are familiar - A young teenager charged with a serious crime is ordered to adult court. What happens next is less commonly known. An ongoing Associated Press series, starting today and running through December, takes an in-depth look at juvenile justice.

A generation after America decided to get tough on kids who commit crimes - sometimes locking them up for life - the tide may be turning.

States are rethinking and, in some cases, retooling juvenile sentencing laws. They're responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

"It's really the trifecta of bad criminal justice policy," says Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. "People didn't know that at the time the changes were made. Now we do, and we have to learn from it."

Juvenile crime is down, in contrast to the turbulent 1990s when politicians vied to pass laws to get violent kids off the streets. Now, in calmer times, some champion community programs for young offenders to replace punitive measures they say went too far.

"The net was thrown too broadly," says Howard Snyder, director of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. "When you make these general laws ... a lot of people believe they made it too easy for kids to go into the adult system, and it's not a good place to be."

Some states are reconsidering life without parole for teens. Some are focusing on raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, while others are exploring ways to offer kids a second chance, once they're locked up or even before. Not everyone, though, believes there's reason to roll back harsher penalties adopted in the 1990s.

"The laws that were changed were appropriate and necessary," says Minnesota prosecutor James Backstrom. "We need to focus on protecting the public - that's No. 1. Then we can address the needs of the juvenile offenders."

Each year about 200,000 defendants under 18 are sent directly or transferred to the adult system, known as criminal court, according to rough estimates.

Most end up there because of state laws that automatically define them as adults, due to their age or offense. Their ranks rose in the 1990s as juvenile crime soared and 48 states made it easier to transfer kids into criminal court, according to the juvenile justice center.

These changes gave prosecutors greater latitude (they could transfer kids without a judge's permission), lowered the age or expanded the crimes that would make it mandatory for a case to be tried there.

Some states also adopted blended sentences in which two sanctions can be imposed simultaneously; if the teen follows the terms of the juvenile sentence, the adult sentence is revoked.

The changes were ushered in to curb the explosion in violence - the teen murder arrest rate doubled from 1987 to 1993 - and to address mounting frustrations with the juvenile justice system.

A series of horrific crimes by kids rattled the nation: A sixth-grader shot and killed a stranger. A 12-year-old stomped and beat a younger playmate. Two grade-schoolers dropped a 5-year-old 14 stories to his death.

Some academics warned that a new generation of "superpredators" would soon be committing mayhem.

It never happened. Drug trafficking declined. An improved economy produced more jobs. And the rate of juvenile violent crime arrests plummeted 46 percent from 1994 to 2005, according to federal figures.

"When crime goes down, people have an opportunity to be more reflective than crisis-oriented and ask, 'Was this policy a good policy?' " Bilchik says.

The MacArthur Foundation, which has worked extensively on juvenile justice reform, said in a report to be released this month that about half the states are involved in juvenile justice reform.

And a national poll, commissioned by MacArthur and the Center for Children's Law and Policy and set for release at the same time, also found widespread public support for rehabilitating teens rather than locking them up.

Some states have already begun to make changes.

- In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter recently formed a juvenile clemency board to hear cases of kids convicted as adults. The head of the panel says it's an acknowledgment that teens are different from adults - a point made in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed as juveniles.

In 2006, the state replaced the juvenile life-without-parole sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

- In California and Michigan, juvenile life without parole also is getting another look.

- In Connecticut, lawmakers recently raised the age of juveniles to 18 for most cases; the changes will be phased in by 2010. Prosecutors can still transfer felonies to adult court.

- In Illinois, a proposal to move 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to juvenile court passed in the state Senate and is pending in the House.

- In Wyoming, talks are under way to shed a system that routinely charges and jails juveniles as adults even for minor offenses such as underage drinking.

Not all states are easing up.

Last summer, Rhode Island passed a law to send 17-year-old offenders to adult prisons in what was intended as a cost-cutting move. The measure, however, was quickly repealed after critics pointed out the plan probably would be more expensive.

Many say the two systems are dramatically different: Juvenile justice emphasizes rehabilitation, adult courts focus on punishment.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, just 16 when he was charged with carjacking in Virginia, was locked up more than eight years, mostly in adult prisons.

"Of course it makes a difference if you're 15, 16 or 17," he says. "You're not prepared to deal with it physically or emotionally. You're trying to deal with being away from home. You're trying to deal with the stress that comes with being in prison."

Violence was a constant. "I got used to stuff most people I see today would never have to get used to - like somebody getting their head split open," Betts says.

Betts had problems at first but gradually retreated into books, taught himself Spanish, wrote and published poetry.

When he was released two years ago at age 24, he won a college scholarship. Now engaged and planning to write a book, he knows he's an exception: "People don't come out of prison and make good," he says.

In New York, Judge Michael Corriero is aware of those odds.

He presides over a special court in the adult system - it's called the Manhattan Youth Part and is responsible for resolving the cases of 13- to 15-year-olds accused of serious crimes.

Corriero tries to steer as many kids as possible away from criminal court, a philosophy detailed in his book, "Judging Children as Children."

"You take a 14-year-old and give him an adult sentence ... you're taking him out of the community at his most vulnerable time," he says. "If you put them in an institution, what is that kid going to look like in 10 years?"

Though juvenile crime tends to evoke images of gangs and murder, violent teens are the exception.

Studies show they account for about 5 percent of all juvenile arrests. Drugs, burglary, theft and other property crimes are among the more common reasons teens are prosecuted in adult courts.

Most of these kids, though, don't end up in adult prison, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

But crossing into the adult world is damaging in itself, argues Liz Ryan, head of the group. About 7,500 juveniles are held in adult jails on any given day, she says, and that number probably reaches tens of thousands a year because of turnover.

Being in an adult jail, Ryan says, increases a kid's risk of sexual abuse and assault. Educational opportunities are limited. And for those convicted of serious crimes, the damage can be irreparable.

"A lot of people say, 'So what? They get a slap on the wrist,'" Ryan says. "Well, there is a consequence. ... You have a felony record that follows you the rest of your life."

Sheila Montgomery worries about her son, Zack. He recently was released after serving 27 months for being an accomplice in the robbery of an Oregon convenience store. He had originally received a 7 1/2-year term after falsely confessing to being the robber; he was re-sentenced after evidence revealed he wasn't.

Montgomery says her son, now 17, will "forever be a felon. He can't put the past behind him. It was hard for him to find work. A lot of people didn't want to see him."

Montgomery says she has no problem with "a little bit of jail time" for her son but believes probation and counseling would have served him better.

But prosecutors say some kids are just too dangerous to be prosecuted as juveniles and then be released by age 21.

If a criminal is likely to be free in a few years and do more harm, "then I come down on the side of risking the damage that is done by sending someone to prison," says Gary Walker, a Michigan prosecutor.

"When they tell me placing a younger person in an adult setting is not necessarily for the betterment of the individual," Walker says, "my answer is: 'Who thinks it is?'"

Minnesota prosecutor Backstrom didn't hesitate in prosecuting Matthew Niedere and Clayton Keister, then 17, as adults in the murder of Niedere's parents. He says he had to "make a very difficult decision whether to put these young men away for their natural lives, or give them a chance."

He weighed several factors, including their lack of criminal record and research that shows the part of the brain that regulates impulses and aggression is still developing in the 20s.

Backstrom allowed the teens to plead guilty to murder involving an armed robbery - providing for the possibility of parole in 30 years.

More than a decade ago, Backstrom had pressed Minnesota lawmakers to make it easier for prosecutors to take serious cases into adult court.

He was frustrated when he couldn't try as an adult a 16-year-old who killed an acquaintance in a drug dispute and served less than 1 1/2 years in juvenile detention.

"That's not justice," Backstrom says. "He should have gone to prison 15 or 20 years. That's what would have happened today."

State Attorney Harry Shorstein of Jacksonville, Fla., has his own approach.

"I think I've created my own juvenile justice system," he says. "The secret is not choosing punishment vs. prevention, but using both."

In 16 years, Shorstein's office has transferred more than 2,600 juvenile cases to adult court. Almost all those who've broken the law go to jail for about a year, where they live separately from adults, attend school and receive social services.

If they stay out of trouble while locked up, and for two years of probation, they don't get a record.

"I believe crime is like gymnastics," he says. "It really is a young person's sport. If you incapacitate a 15- or 16-year-old for a year, you can prevent more crime than if you imprison a 22-year-old for life."

What's done to children, they will do to society.  ~Karl Menninger

Offline Peters Wife

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #1 on: December 02, 2007, 06:41:56 PM »
I really think it depends on the individual situation.  A 15 year old knows not to do something wrong and for the most part knows that they can get away with stuff pretty easily since they are a minor.  There are also just Bad people or people with mental disabilities.  Some kids are just born without a conscience and if they kill purposely as young adults most will kill again after being released after their 18th birthday.
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Offline Jims

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #2 on: December 02, 2007, 11:42:56 PM »
Kids are not born without a conscience unless they have actual brain damage. That is something prosecutors like to throw around - the "bad seed" theory. But so-called "bad seeds" are created. They are the products of their environment UNLESS they suffered brain trauma.

A kid who kills should not be released shortly after their 18th birthday. But nor should they automatically be sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Children are first and foremost their parents' responsibility.
But society also has a responsibility to our children. We have a duty to protect them from harm, to protect them from neglect and abuse. We have a duty to educate them, to teach them. There are too many inmates locked up for crimes committed as children who did not have the benefit of a stable household environment. Society failed them as children, and then they become adolescents - full of anger, lacking the skills to handle all the pressure that is thrust upon them - and commit crimes, sometimes murder. Society then fails them a second time by calling them "adults" and trying them as such.

Don't be fooled by physical appearance! They may be physically imposing, have the height and weight of an adult, be strong as an ox. But inside, their brains are undeveloped, their emotional state is undeveloped, their hormones are a mess. They are not in any way, shape, or form adults! We know that, and that's why we don't let 15-year-olds buy alcohol, or vote, or sign contracts or have any of the other privileges that come with true adulthood.

Also, remember that if an adult has sex with a 15-year-old, even consensual sex, that 15-year-old is considered a child and the defendant is labeled a CHILD MOLESTER. If the only test for adulthood was knowing right from wrong, then many 7-year-olds would have to be considered adults! For that matter, most kindergarten kids know it's wrong to hit someone

One of the biggest problems with adolescents is not that they think they can get away with stuff because they are minors. It is that they don't stop to think about the consequences at all! They act impulsively, and they are extremely vulnerable to peer pressure.

It isn't that kids are not culpable at all. It is that because of their youth, they are less culpable and should be treated as the children they are.
What's done to children, they will do to society.  ~Karl Menninger

Offline Peters Wife

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #3 on: December 03, 2007, 01:37:45 AM »
Jims I feel like I may have offened you and I'm sorry if I did.  I just refuse to belive that we are products of our environment.  There are plenty of kids born and raised in the heart of the hood or the ghetto and they choose to become better, and then there are rich kids with every option availible to them and decide to turn to drugs and crime.  And you can't just crucify or blame the parents there are plenty of great parents out there that have instiied value into their children and the kids just simple won't listen, granted there are also bad parents who don't even know their kids are alive but thats no excuse either.  "My moms a drugy so I killed a man cuz I did'nt know any better"  And physical apperance has nothing to do with it, and emotional development or hormones shouldn't give you a get outta jail free card especially for taking anothers life.  Yes society has some responsibility for children but whos responsible for the people affected by the crime? 

Also remember that alot of 15 year olds lie about their age to the adult that they want to have sex with. 

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Offline Jims

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #4 on: December 03, 2007, 08:55:53 AM »
No you didn't offend me. I'm just passionate about this issue and I have been researching this for years. Again, you say they shouldn't be given a "get outta jail free card" and I agree wholeheartedly! If they break the law, and certainly if they kill someone, they should be punished. Just not for the rest of their lives.

There are so many variables at play when it comes to assessing why a child kills. But the one thing that most have in common is a background of abuse and neglect. There are plenty of statistics showing that. But there are exceptions, too. I hear the argument a lot that lots of kids are abused and don't kill someone. That's true. But they are not unaffected by the abuse they suffered. Some grow up to become abusers themselves. Some grow up to become substance abusers, some become promiscuous and cannot succeed in a healthy relationship, some have food addictions or eating disorders, some suffer lifelong depressions and other mental disorders, and some never grow up at all - they commit suicide as teenagers or young adults. A person who experiences severe abuse and/or neglect does NOT magically grow up unaffected. IF they have a mentor along the way, a trusted adult, a coach, an uncle, a teacher - someone who is consistently there for them and can meliorate the effects of the past abuse - then they have a good chance of turning their lives around.

Please keep an open mind when it comes to juvenile crime. I could write volumes about these cases and each one is different in details but amazingly similar in the lives of the offenders. Yes, there are always exceptions. But they are fewer than you think.

You said "Yes society has some responsibility for children but whos responsible for the people affected by the crime?"  If we were more proactively involved in the problems affecting our youths, there would be fewer victims. That's what I was trying to say.

"My mom's a drugy so I killed a man cuz I don't know any better." The kids don't use that as an excuse. That would be giving them an awareness they simply don't possess! But yes, having a drug-addicted single parent can definitely be a contributing factor (one of many) necessary to create a child who kills!

I urge you to look further into this before judging juvenile offenders. There are many great articles available on the Internet that give insight into this troubling problem.
What's done to children, they will do to society.  ~Karl Menninger

Offline Sister

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #5 on: December 03, 2007, 10:42:15 AM »
I think environment does play a part in how children turn out.  We can't believe that we can just bring a child into any kind of enviornment......and think that child isn't going to be affected if he or she is living in filth and poverty, in a drug oriented enviornment, and without any morals or knowledge of what is right and wrong.   The few children that do overcome that are rare, in my opinion.  Parents ARE responsible for their children, although I am aware that sometimes parents are very good to their children, and still, the children may go the wrong way and do something that they shouldn't.   

DRUGS are a big contributing factor, as well as mental illness.   And, just because a person makes ONE  very large mistake, doesn't mean that they should be labeled as that for the rest of their lives.   People DO make mistakes, and sometimes they are very, very, big mistakes.......sometimes people do this in the heat of the moment.....this does not make them a "killer" for life.   

The vast majority of people do deserve another chance.
If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself.  You are not that important. Galations 6:2

Offline not the mama

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #6 on: December 03, 2007, 10:52:09 AM »
 orna If you do not have respect for yourself you will not have any for the lives of others...if you feel you are worthless, how can you assign worth to others? We have been told to "love your neighbor as you love yourself" well that is an impossibility for those who feel they are on the 'outside looking in' . There are few murderers who repeat their crimes.....just recently in our area a young boy killed another in some dispute and as he was found guilty told the crying mother of the victim:"That ain't gonna bring his b**ch a** back!"Does he have any concept of what 60 years will be??? No. He had to keep the tough guy persona going because that is all he had. He is not safe until he learns that people are valuable....and prison will teach him this??? riiiiight!There are no easy solutions to these problems and I think several years ago we all got tired and just said'put 'em away!'. The kids themselves don't even know where they fit: pampered 'pets' or useful members of society? We send them out with guns overseas to 'serve and protect' but they better not drink! And they are doing this before they can legally finance a car! And of course if that 'serviceman' has sex with a girl who is 16-17 (and has gotten birth control from her high school)  he can also be a sex offender for 10 years or more, if she or her parents (or an interested school counselor) gets angry.....and prosecutors will do anything for a win ....and that is usually an easy win!! He will be lucky if he doesn't also go to prison....when did our children, our national teasure, become our trash?? ?>   and when did we decide that prison could do what we as a parent could not? Or had no time for as the 2 car payments had to be made,and stayat home moms are still vilified in print as 'wasters' of their talents.....as tho putting our God given talents at the service of our family was a 'waste'! So now all of us with 'talents' for runing forklifts and cash registers are out there earning the grocery money...I have watched for the 44 years I have been married as the job I had (family) was denigrated and all the parents on the block had me taking care of their kids while they were at work...i was the only contact as i was the only one at home! There was no one to listentothe kids and when I could see some warning signs of trouble ahead for one of the 'chicks' I knew, there was certainly nothig but anger from the parents! They really did have no emotional time left to 'deal' with their kids and certainly were not grateful for a 'heads up' It is why i think I am writing to 12 young people in prison (ages 17-24) whose parents will not write because theya re angry at how the kids have 'let down the family' ....I knew them all and I have my own opinion about who let them down..... Sorry had to vent!! My heart aches for so many of these kids! To go to prison for a 47.00 theft is insane....and 7 1/2 years at that!  gotta get off before i blow a gasket  (and at my age gaskets are hard to replace!)

Offline Jims

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #7 on: December 03, 2007, 03:22:17 PM »
Sister and Not the mama, excellent posts. You need to join in the fight for HB 1695.There is now and will continue to have much opposition from people who just don't understand.
What's done to children, they will do to society.  ~Karl Menninger

Offline wifey

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Offline Scout

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #9 on: December 03, 2007, 09:10:06 PM »
wifey, the attorney in this case is our very own smfchicago...and her client is a friend of my husband's (and mine)...I was thrilled to death when she called me with the news last week. 
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It's difficult to have a battle of wits with unarmed individuals.

Offline Jims

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #10 on: December 03, 2007, 09:16:47 PM »
I have a very good feeling about his re-sentencing. I don't think he will be re-sentenced to life. Will the judge be bold enough to give him a sentence that would come down to "time served?" I don't know. But he should.
What's done to children, they will do to society.  ~Karl Menninger

Offline Scout

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #11 on: December 03, 2007, 10:09:54 PM »
I agree Jims, I have a good feeling as well.  Even if the judge gives him the 50 years the inmate in the mentioned case got...he'd only have to serve 25 with good time.  He's have less than 10 years to serve.
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It's difficult to have a battle of wits with unarmed individuals.

Offline Sister

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #12 on: December 04, 2007, 10:47:03 AM »
Jims and Scout, I am confused.  Is this J or G you guys are talking about, or someone else?   
If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself.  You are not that important. Galations 6:2

Offline Scout

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #13 on: December 04, 2007, 04:25:58 PM »
It's someone else sister...but Jims and I both know him, through smf.  I've met him a couple of times in the visiting room when he was at Stateville and G knows him pretty well.
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It's difficult to have a battle of wits with unarmed individuals.

Offline Sister

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Re: Should Kids Be Tried as Adults? States Rethinking Harsh Punishments
« Reply #14 on: December 04, 2007, 10:27:06 PM »
Thanks, Scout.  That is good news, but would be even better if it was one of your guys.  :)
If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself.  You are not that important. Galations 6:2