Age of Reckoning

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

After a decade of promising to improve the education system, politicians have begun to embrace a new cure for what ails some children: the adult-criminal-justice system. Where they once spoke of helping children whom society has placed at risk, many now speak of incarcerating those who pose a risk to society. Threatening and imposing adult sentences, they claim, is the only way to make schools safe and drug-free. Pledging school reform has given way to lamenting the failure of reform schools.

In delivering their annual State of the State addresses over the past two months, the nation's governors have almost without exception focused on crime and, especially, the upsurge in violence committed by juveniles. Almost all have vowed to get tough, and many have proposed placing entire categories of juvenile offenders under the jurisdiction of adult courts.

"We must understand that our present system did not envision the level of violence and viciousness among young offenders today,'' said Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia. Calling for a modernized state juvenile-justice system "to crack down on those young punks who commit violent crimes,'' Miller added that he would seek to have juveniles as young as age 13 tried as adults for such offenses.

Lawmakers in New York, Arizona, Washington, Florida, Minnesota, Illinois, and several other states have taken up similar measures.

On the national level, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has endorsed the approach used in her home state of Florida, which holds the threat of being treated as adults over young offenders to get them to cooperate with the juvenile system. Moreover, the U.S. Senate's anti-crime bill calls for children 13 and older to be automatically transferred to adult court for violent federal offenses.

In keeping with traditional approaches to juvenile delinquency, many of the new initiatives try to address societal problems linked to juvenile crime. Most of their proponents, however, clearly reject the belief that the prior victimization of serious juvenile criminals is reason to treat them more leniently.

"We sympathize with those neglected children who are tempted by drugs or gangs,'' declared Gov. Pete Wilson of California, who has called for violent offenders as young as 14 to be prosecuted as adults. "But when as teenagers or adults they victimize others, our sympathy must yield to responsibility. And our first responsibility must always be to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.''

Gov. Fife Symington of Arizona contended that "there is every reason to question whether our courts should be moonlighting as social-service agencies.'' What's more, he added, "I was not hired to be Arizona's chief social theorist. I was not sent here to sit meditating on Freud or the latest 'root causes' of criminal behavior.''

No Simple Solutions

Many experts on juvenile law criticize the wholesale transfer of certain juvenile offenders to adult courts as a simplistic, and potentially disastrous, solution to a complex problem. Such an approach, they say, does little to address the well-established antecedents of serious, violent, and chronic juvenile crime: neglect, weak family attachments, a lack of consistent discipline, poor school performance, delinquent peer groups, physical or sexual abuse, or an upbringing in high-crime neighborhoods.

"We have not valued millions of our children's lives, and so they do not value ours in a society in which they have no social or economic stake,'' Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children's Defense Fund, told a House subcommittee last month as she urged it to leave provisions calling for adult treatment of some categories of young offenders out of its crime bill.

Moreover, the leadership of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges argues that sending juvenile offenders to adult courts and prisons virtually destroys any hope for rehabilitation. Others cite research indicating that juveniles sentenced in adult courts tend to have higher recidivism rates and to commit another crime sooner after their release than those who go through the juvenile system.

Legal scholars also caution that changes in laws dealing with juvenile offenders may signal a major shift in society's overall conception of childhood and children's legal rights and responsibilities. This shift, they say, could have wide-ranging implications for other areas of law, as well as for school policies dictating discipline, governance, and the transfer of student records.

Barry C. Feld, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, says our nation's changing view of childhood culpability and responsibility "has implications for every age-graded social institution in our society'' and could influence our thinking on voting rights and juvenile due process, among other areas.

As the presiding judge of the juvenile court in Santa Clara County, Calif., Leonard P. Edwards has seen several school systems adopt mandatory-expulsion policies that bar children from schools for certain offenses.

Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., says some states also have been changing their laws to give school administrators more access to the records of juveniles whose cases were processed by juvenile courts. He predicts that teacher access to such information will become a "major bargaining chip'' in contract talks.

After all, teachers can often see the signs from an early age. "You hear elementary teachers say, 'This kid is going to kill somebody by the time he gets out of high school,''' says Lieut. William F. Balkwill, who runs the youth-services unit of the Sarasota County, Fla., sheriff's department. "Then, six or seven years later, it comes true.''

"We have begun to break down the dichotomy of 'child' and 'adult,''' says Janet E. Ainsworth, a professor of law at the University of Puget Sound who has written on the subject. Our legal system, she notes, appears to be changing to account for a fact educators have long known: Children and adults are not separated by a single distinct line.

But when society sees the bill for incarcerating large new populations of juveniles, experts predict, it will likely begin putting more pressure on schools to pick up where families have failed. "It simply is not rational public policy to condition our willingness to spend money on children on their getting into trouble first,'' Edelman argued in her testimony.

Abandoning Tradition

The American juvenile-justice system sprouted from the establishment of separate juvenile courts and legal procedures more than a century ago.

According to Hunter Hurst 3rd, the director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, the Pittsburgh-based research branch of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the founders of the first juvenile courts envisioned a system that would guide loiterers, runaways, and young perpetrators of petty crimes toward a responsible and productive adulthood. To this day, juvenile judges say they seek to strike a balance between protecting the community, holding children and parents accountable for children's actions, and helping wayward youths develop the skills they need to get back on the right track.

However, law-enforcement and school officials also have long objected to the secrecy shrouding the proceedings of juvenile courts--a secrecy they say prevents consideration of a juvenile's previous record and hinders efforts to identify and track serious offenders.

By the 1970's, increases in the seriousness of much juvenile crime had prompted states to begin rethinking their juvenile-justice systems to establish provisions for sending certain cases to adult courts. By 1992, according to the National Center for Youth Law in San Francisco, every state had some mechanism for prosecuting youths under 18 as adults.

Despite such changes in state statutes, there remains a widespread perception that juvenile courts coddle young criminals and that those criminals have exploited this fact to unleash a growing onslaught of hard-core teenage crime.

"The statistics are telling,'' said Gov. Barbara Roberts of Oregon in announcing the formation of a task force to rethink that state's juvenile-justice system. "Nine out of 10 juveniles now in custody in Oregon are committed for felonies. One-third are committed for sexual offenses. Over the past five years, the number of homicide-related offenders in the juvenile system has grown 800 percent.'' Our society's failure to hold juveniles more responsible for their actions, she concluded, "is turning our kids into criminals and our communities and schools into war zones.''

'Not the Cleaver Kids'

In a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, 73 percent of respondents said juveniles who commit violent crimes should be treated as adults. Only 19 percent clearly favored treating juvenile offenders more leniently. Similarly, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in January found that 57 percent of respondents thought prosecuting juveniles as young as 14 as adults would make a major difference in reducing crime.

Behind the public's support for such changes, experts say, is outrage fueled by media reports of hard-core, frightening juvenile offenders who have been released back onto the streets.

Typical is the story of Craig Price, a Rhode Island juvenile-training-school inmate, featured on a Jan. 25 segment of the "Dateline NBC'' television news magazine. Price, who was arrested at age 15 for the brutal slaying of a Warwick, R.I., woman and her two children, soon confessed to killing a neighbor two years earlier by stabbing her 58 times. An adult convicted of such offenses would likely serve life without parole, but Price, being a juvenile, was sent to the juvenile-training center until his 21st birthday.

The Price case has prompted Rhode Island to change its laws to allow violent offenders of any age to be tried as adults. So far, though, the state has been unable to block Price's release, and because his juvenile records are sealed, nothing about his deeds would show up on a criminal-background check. "Dateline NBC'' quoted a local police officer as saying, "There's no doubt in anybody's mind that Craig Price is going to kill again.''

In delivering their annual addresses, many governors invoked images of cold-blooded teenage killers and noted that children are being arrested for serious crimes at younger ages.

"These are not the Cleaver kids soaping up some windows,'' Governor Miller said. "These are middle school kids conspiring to hurt their teacher, teenagers shooting people and committing rapes, young thugs running gangs and terrorizing neighborhoods and showing no remorse when they get caught.''

According to statistics recently published by the U.S. Justice Department's office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, juvenile arrests for violent crimes increased by 50 percent--double the adult increase--between 1987 and 1991. Juvenile arrests for murder rose 85 percent, four times the increase for adults. By the end of that period, juvenile arrests for murder, forcible rape, robbery, and other violent crimes had reached an all-time high and accounted for 17 percent of all arrests for such crimes.

The juvenile-justice office also notes, however, that only 5 percent of juvenile arrests are for violent offenses, and a small proportion of juvenile offenders commit most of the violent and serious crime.

"It is important to emphasize that even though violent juveniles consume the headlines, the actual juvenile offender in most courts is typically a misdemeanor shoplifter. And if they are charged with a felony, it is typically either a burglary or a stolen car,'' says the University of Minnesota's Feld, who has devoted much of his career to studying juvenile justice.

As the National Center for Juvenile Justice points out, adults still commit more than 90 percent of homicides.

"I think the public is unfairly or inaccurately blaming the youth sector of our population for the increase in violent crime,'' says Robert E. DeComo, a senior program manager at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit research and consulting organization in San Francisco.

Most of the statutory changes now under consideration call for juveniles to be prosecuted as adults for murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault, and other violent offenses. Several, however, also target juvenile criminals who use guns, sell drugs, or belong to gangs.

Safety in Schools

If the laws do make a dent in violent juvenile crime, those most likely to be made safer are juveniles themselves. According to the Justice Department's juvenile-justice office, three of every 10 juvenile murder arrests involves a victim under the age of 18. National surveys also have shown that people under the age of 20 account for a disproportionate percentage of violent-crime victims and that teenage victimizations are most likely to occur at school.

Organizations specifically concerned with school safety welcome such proposals. They say the statutory changes would likely improve student discipline and provide more access to information about student crime--information that will enable them to provide young offenders with the supervision and help they need.

Stephens of the National School Safety Center says the use of such laws "will have the effect of warehousing these kids and keeping them out of circulation for a long time.'' Such an outcome, he maintains, is greatly preferable to the current situation in most communities, where "youngsters who have committed violent offenses, including murder, are being sent back into the public schools as a condition of probation by the juvenile courts.''

The current juvenile-justice system "has become a laughingstock to these kids,'' says James Corbin, the president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, a nonprofit organization of about 900 certified law-enforcement officers who work in educational settings. "If people believed they would really be punished for bringing weapons and drugs into the schools, there wouldn't be as much of it. Large numbers of these kids have been there four, five, six, or 10 times, and the fear of arrest is nonexistent.''

Glenda Hatchett Johnson, the chief presiding judge of the Fulton County, Ga., juvenile court, points to the tendency for adult courts to hold children for longer periods of time and to make no effort, as juvenile courts do, to promptly return them to school. In doing so, she says, adult courts are more disruptive to the learning process.

Richard J. FitzGerald, a family-court judge in Louisville, Ky., says another factor can complicate matters even further. Schools are most likely, he maintains, to see such charges leveled against students in classes for the mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, or learning-disabled.

Coddle or Crack Down?

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges agrees that some children should be waived to adult courts. It maintains, however, that juvenile-court judges should make such decisions on a case-by-case basis.

James M. Farris, a Beaumont, Tex., juvenile-court judge who serves as the organization's president, contends that research belies the assumption that juvenile courts impose fewer sanctions or give lighter sentences to violent and repeat offenders.

Judge Edwards of the Santa Clara County juvenile court agrees. In fact, he has found that adult courts tend to treat children more lightly because they regard juveniles as first offenders. DeComo of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency adds that prosecutors in the adult-justice system often downgrade the charges leveled against juveniles so they will not fall under mandatory-waiver provisions.

Others question whether the threat of being prosecuted as an adult actually deters juveniles from crime. Children, Judge FitzGerald asserts, "don't necessarily see a linkage between their behaviors and consequences and are not capable of making legal and right decisions without some guidance and structure in their lives.''

Still other experts raise the most vexing question of all. Hurst of the National Center for Juvenile Justice put it this way in a recent N.C.J.J. newsletter: "If adults commit most of the violence in the country and they are not deterred or corrected by the criminal-justice system, why do we think the criminal-justice system will be effective with juveniles?''

Not Too Young To Die

Ultimately, experts wonder how the federal and state governments, which are already dealing with widespread overcrowding in the prison system, will find the room and resources to incarcerate large numbers of young criminals. They also question how the courts, and society, will cope with the more troubling consequences of the new laws.

As a result of its waivers, inmates who committed crimes as juveniles are showing up on Florida's death row. One of them is Jeffrey Farina. He shot three people and stabbed another in a fast-food store in 1992; one victim died. Asked why he did it, Farina said simply, "I had a boring day.''

More than a dozen states currently place no age restrictions on those who can be sentenced to death for capital crimes. Over the past two decades, seven people around the country have been executed for crimes they committed at the age of 17. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of a 16-year-old murderer. The year before, however, the Court blocked the execution of a 15-year-old on grounds it would violate the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Prisons and jails also will have to deal with the fact that juvenile inmates who are not placed in separate facilities will be vulnerable to victimization by their fellow prisoners. Governor Miller of Georgia has proposed establishing a separate correctional facility for juveniles tried as adults, but most states plan to continue to house them in regular jails and prisons.

"Look, these kids are all going to be coming back to society,'' says the University of Minnesota's Feld. "We need to think about what they are going to be like when they come back.''

Vol. 13, Issue 24

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories