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Juvenile Justice?: In the 1990s, many states passed laws that made it easier to try teens as adults. Does youth crime deserve "adult time"?

Shaun Miller was 15 when he made the biggest mistake of his life. One night in 1998, he and three other teens robbed a convenience store in a small desert town in Nevada. An older boy planned the crime and held a gun to the cashier's head while Shaun, unarmed, took $726 from the cash register. The robbery was caught on videotape, and Shaun's life was changed forever.

In the 1990s, Nevada joined a nationwide movement to crack down on juvenile (under age 18) crime. In fact, nearly every state made it easier to punish teens as adults.

In the juvenile system, founded more than a century ago, the emphasis is on rehabilitation (counseling and education to help young people turn themselves around). But in the adult system, criminals are treated more harshly. They are locked away in prisons as punishment for their acts.

The tough "new" Nevada decided to treat Shaun Miller as an adult. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and confined with inmates (prisoners) 10 to 20 years older than he.

"I just don't get it," Shaun says. "They should have at least given me a chance at some kind of decent rehabilitation before they put me [in prison]."

Adult Crime, Adult Time

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an alarming new trend: a rise in violent crimes--especially murder--committed by juveniles, some as young as 7 and 8. It was time, state and federal lawmakers concluded, to get tough on the offenders.

The rules for who goes into the adult system, for which offenses, and at what age, still vary widely. But at least 17 states allow judges in juvenile courts to send youths, no matter how young, to adult courts to be tried for certain serious crimes.

"This represents a rejection of the principles on which the juvenile justice system was founded," says Marsha Levick, legal director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "[We're saying] that all we need to do is lock kids up, and that provides public safety."

About 200,000 juveniles were tried as adults in 1998, according to an estimate by the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Precise numbers are hard to come by, experts say, because law-enforcement agencies don't track juveniles in the adult system.

Teens Behind Bars

The juvenile justice system assumes that young people are less responsible for their actions and more open to rehabilitation than adults. The system strives to help troubled teens turn their lives around. It also protects their identities, so that they won't have to live with criminal records as adults.

But when violent crimes rose, many law-enforcement experts concluded that a new generation of kids had outgrown the system. It no longer helped teens get back on track, lawmakers said, and it didn't do enough to protect the public from violent offenders.

"Criminal behavior warrants punishment," says James Backstrom, a Minnesota lawyer who focuses on juvenile justice. "Kids need to recognize and respect the law. Clearly, when you've reached the age of 16 or 17, you're accountable for your actions."

Today, despite a lower crime rate, more teens are behind bars. According to federal statistics, 3,400 people under 18 entered adult prisons in 1985. The number jumped to 7,400 by 1997.

And, on an average day, 7,800 more teens Sit in adult jails, waiting for their trials to start.

Unfair to Kids

Under previous juvenile laws, an individual's age determined whether he or she was tried in juvenile court. Today, it's more the nature of the offense committed that decides. The change has meant that many young offenders are being treated too harshly.

For example, teens often commit crimes in groups. These groups usually have leaders and followers. One person may have fired a gun, while another kept watch outside. Yet, in adult courts, all of the group's members are treated equally before the law.

Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, in San Francisco, California, believes that many teens now in the adult system don't belong there. "The majority of kids being tried as adults," he says, "are being tried for nonviolent crimes."

Crime School?

Is the system fair to teens like Shaun? Giving another chance to a kid who makes a mistake sounds great, say many prosecutors. But the real goal should be preventing the crime from happening again.

"The adult system is superior to the Juvenile system in its power to [isolate] kids and prevent them from committing more crimes in the community," says John Delaney, a deputy district attorney for the juvenile division in Philadelphia. "The same kid who would have done 9 to 12 months in a juvenile facility is now going to do five years, plus probation."

But Mark Soler of the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C., doesn't think that the public is safer as a result of tougher laws. He points to two studies that compared teens prosecuted in the juvenile system with teens from equivalent backgrounds who went through the adult system.

The studies found that those coming out of the adult system were 30 percent more likely to commit new crimes, and that they tended to do so sooner, and more violently.

"Prosecuting kids as adults," says Soler, "creates more crime."

John Momot, the lawyer who defended Shaun Miller, agrees. "You take a kid who's 15 years old," says Momot, "place him in an adult prison, and then tell him he's supposed to rehabilitate himself? It's absolutely ridiculous. That's a school to learn how to commit a crime."

And, in adult prisons, kids are more vulnerable to physical attacks.

A Future for Shaun

Some states, including Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, Washington, and even Nevada, have begun to respond to such concerns.

This pleases Barry Glick, a former New York State prison official. "People forget that even though they've done some [horrible], violent crimes, they are still adolescents," Glick says of juvenile offenders.

In November 2000, Shaun was moved into a new juvenile unit at the Southern Desert Correctional Center in Indian Springs, Nevada. Having dropped out of school in ninth grade, he is now studying for his GED (high-school equivalency diploma), and trying to get his life back on track.

Shaun has dreams of starting his own business some day, but knows that many challenges await him.

"What am I going to write on a job application?" he says. "'I've been in prison since I'm 15, and I robbed somebody, and I got no work experience.' Who's gonna hire me?"

Shaun is also haunted by the horror stories he heard in adult prison. "It's a whole lot of stuff," he says, "I shouldn't have learned."
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Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 25, 2002
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