Printer Friendly

Juvenile crime, grown up time.

Fear has driven a lot of legislatures to rethink the way they're treating juvenile offenders, and there's little agreement about what works.

Are most state juvenile justice systems as out-of-date as bell bottoms and sideburns? Today's young offender is likely to be depicted as a gun-toting, nothing-to-lose, vicious predator. Almost gone is the Boys Town image of juvenile corrections, guiding wayward youth onto the right path. Taking its place are policies that say: If you're old enough to do the crime, you're old enough to do the time.

The public is alarmed by - and afraid of - the increasing number and violence of crimes committed by juveniles. There's some justification. FBI arrest rates for youthful violent offenders nearly doubled between 1982 and 1992 while increasing by only 27 percent for those over 18. Property crimes committed by juveniles were up just 3 percent, however, while dropping slightly for older offenders. And in 20 years, the proportion of crime committed by juveniles has increased only a little.


Even so, youth crime and violence has spurred a full-fledged movement in the states to reinvent juvenile justice and to hold accountable serious, violent young offenders. Increasingly, that means treating them like adult criminals. Legislatures in nearly half of the states last year passed new provisions giving adult courts jurisdiction over crimes committed by juveniles. Other new measures have made substantial changes in policies for fingerprinting juveniles or for lifting what traditionally has been a veil of confidentiality surrounding juvenile case proceedings or certain records.

"The juvenile crime scene has changed considerably," says Harry Shorstein, state attorney for the Fourth Judicial Circuit in Jacksonville, Fla., contrasting his experience as a local prosecutor in the early 1970s to the cases his office handles today. "We used to deal mostly with kids breaking street lights and the like, and now routinely see rape and robbery." Shorstein says the system, likewise, needs to respond differently than it did 20 years ago. But others caution against turning juvenile justice on its ear.

"We're making fundamental changes in juvenile justice based on a few cases," says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco. He and other youth experts express concern that the wave of get-tough policy is based on panic, perpetuated by the media, that youth violence is out of control and that we don't have any other answers. The juvenile justice system's traditional mission of providing individual intervention for young offenders is being eroded, observers like Krisberg say, because of this fear and frustration over crime.


Alfred Blumstein, who has studied youth violence for the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., attributes increases in homicide rates in the late 1980s to a spurt in murders committed by young people ages 15-22, especially young black males. FBI data show murder arrests for that age group up more than 60 percent between 1982 and 1992. Further, Blumstein has documented the fact that murders by young people are more likely to be committed against strangers and with guns, but there is no corresponding trend for non-gun homicides. And, sadly, youth violence frequently claims young people as its victims. Homicide became the second leading cause of death among teenagers, after suicide, in 1992.

"It is clear there has been an attitude change toward the juvenile justice system. It's thought it cannot handle the perceived larger number of serious offenders," says Howard Snyder, director of systems research for the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. "The pendulum has swung away from rehabilitation of the child and toward community protection."

This shift is seen even in the wording of state juvenile justice codes. Florida, for example, in a major revision of its juvenile justice law in 1994 changed its stated first priority for juvenile offenders who have committed serious crimes from "best interests of the child" to that of "public safety." The tougher approach can apply to juveniles as young as 14. North Carolina lowered the age of juveniles who can be tried as adults to 13, and Oklahoma now can prosecute as adults 13-year-olds accused of murder. Tennessee in 1994 removed the age limit for trying as adults juveniles accused of certain serious and violent offenses.

There are several means by which cases involving juveniles are transferred to adult criminal court, but no composite, national numbers of those cases. Most states traditionally have had provisions for "judicial waiver" where a juvenile court judge may waive jurisdiction over a case, often at the request of prosecution, and transfer it to adult criminal court. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that in 1991, 9,700 juvenile delinquency cases were transferred via judicial waiver, an increase of 39 percent over 1987. Waivers of drug cases increased 152 percent and offenses against people by 65 percent.


Increasingly, states are sending juveniles to adult systems under "concurrent jurisdiction" provisions that give prosecutors discretion to file certain cases directly into criminal court. Through "statutory exclusion," the legislature can require that certain serious juvenile cases be filed in adult court instead of having a prosecutor or judge decide how the case will be handled. At least 13 states enacted measures in 1994 requiring that certain juvenile cases be handled in adult court. Some were quite specific, like an Indiana law taking certain gang-related offenses out of juvenile court jurisdiction. Other states passed laws that more broadly require adult court handling of juveniles. Kansas, for example, now requires that 16- or 17-year-olds with one prior serious conviction be treated as adults for any subsequent felony charge. Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Washington have broadly expanded required filing of juvenile cases in adult criminal court.

It has been estimated that 5 percent of the more than 2 million juvenile arrests in 1990 were filed directly in criminal courts and that the total number of juvenile cases processed in adult court in 1990 was as high as 200,000.

The host of new laws will send many more juveniles into the adult criminal justice system where, those policies assume, young people will get the harsh treatment a juvenile system cannot provide. But a growing body of evidence suggests that trying juveniles as adults often does not result in tough sentences, but does lessen the chance a young person will get treatment that might diminish future criminality. Further, many experts say the juvenile justice system would be the most appropriate place for the vast majority of youthful offenders if it were retooled and resources allocated better.

"It is absolutely untrue that the juvenile justice system is soft on crime," says Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C. "What's happening is that too many nonviolent kids for whom community placements would be appropriate are being locked up in juvenile detention centers."


Soler says that policies in most states have not reserved secure detention for relatively smaller numbers of violent juvenile offenders. Locking up only the violent and most serious offenders would allow all of the kids in the system to get more appropriate treatment, and there would be less motivation to send them to the adult system, he says.

"Someone who kills someone in a drive-by shooting should be locked up for a long time. But we're locking up and even sending to the adult system, kids who are property and drug offenders," Soler says. He and other experts say it's a fallacy to believe that the adult system is meting out swift and sure punishment to many of these juveniles.

An action plan for dealing with violent juvenile crime developed by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges last summer also suggests that treating more juveniles like adults may be misguided. One study, the report says, showed up to half of the juvenile cases sent to adult court being dismissed. Sending a case to adult criminal court does, of course, require that it meet a high standard for sufficiency of evidence, adequacy of witnesses and appropriate due process. Historically, adult criminal courts dismiss many cases for lack of these requirements, while they have a high conviction rate for cases brought.

A recent study by the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judge's Commission tracked cases waived to criminal court in 1986. It found that a property crime was the most serious alleged offense in about half of the waived cases, and that while 89 percent of cases resulted in a conviction, two-thirds received jail sentences of two years or less. The Pennsylvania study also suggested that, proportionately, the adult court spent more time on case processing compared to the actual sentence imposed than the juvenile court would have.

An analysis in Florida, a state that historically has waived many kids to adult court, showed nearly 20 percent of those cases were never prosecuted. Conviction rates were high - 96 percent - but more than a third did not receive jail or prison sentences. It would seem that was partly due to the increasing number of juvenile cases sent to adult court for property or drug felonies. The Florida analysis also showed only 29 percent of waived cases were for violent felonies, and that the juvenile justice system had not exhausted its resources on many of the youths sent to adult courts.

"We had been fooled into thinking that Florida was tough on juveniles who commit crimes, but found that was just not accurate," says Representative Elvin Martinez, who chairs the House Committee on Criminal Justice. Martinez said most adolescents whose cases were filed as adults were referred back to the juvenile justice system or diverted into adult programs that could not meet their needs. Reform passed in 1994 specifies that cases of habitual and violent juveniles must be filed in adult court. For others, state's attorneys or judges retain discretion. The law also created a "maximum risk" category to make the juvenile system more appropriate for some serious offenders, Martinez said. Those young criminals may be confined to special facilities for treatment and training until they turn 21.

Snyder observes that the trend to send more and more young offenders to the adult system is, in part, a reaction to overcrowded and over-stressed juvenile detention systems. Indeed, many states have begun to see the same crowding in juvenile facilities that has plagued adult corrections. Thirty states in one survey reported that juvenile detention facilities have been overcrowded for the past 10 years, most typically beginning in 1985. "We're building more facilities despite the fact that most kids in detention are not serious or violent offenders," Snyder said.

A recent study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency showed that less than 14 percent of incarcerated youths in 28 state juvenile corrections systems had committed serious, violent crimes. More than half of them had committed property and drug crimes and were in a state institution for the first time. A similar study, also by NCCD, estimated that a third of the young people in detention facilities in 14 states could be placed in less secure settings at less cost and little risk to the public.


Massachusetts closed its secure training schools for juvenile offenders in 1972 and developed a variety of community programs. Utah in the early 1980s also revamped its juvenile justice system to limit secure confinement to dangerous juveniles; it set up residential and nonresidential community-based programs for most offenders. The move toward community placements remains a practical approach, but one with little political appeal, according to Soler.

"This is a tough time for juvenile justice," he says. "There is such a thirst for punitiveness for kids who commit serious crimes that we are sweeping many others into that same net, whether they belong there or not."

Studies have found that, overall, juvenile justice has worked well in the pioneering states that developed community-based programs for all but the most serious and violent offenders. "The best systems still are those that provide community options and individualized treatment for many offenders," says Krisberg. "Those have been shown to reduce recidivism and graduation to serious crime."

Missouri appears to be the only state currently moving in a big way toward more community-based programs for juvenile offenders. A more noticeable trend in the states is to provide facilities or even redesign systems to accommodate increasing numbers of juveniles. Colorado created a Youthful Offender System in a 1993 special session to handle teens ages 14 to 18 who are sent to the adult department of corrections. Several other states have since created intermediate facilities for similar offenders.

Similar experimentation is seen at the local level. A county jail in Jacksonville, Fla., includes a segregated housing section for youthful offenders sent there by county judges to serve adult sentences. What makes this adult jail unusual is the public school and counseling programs, which, if completed successfully, may erase a juvenile's adult conviction.


Florida state attorney Shorstein says efforts to aggressively prosecute more juveniles as adults, incarcerate them and get the word out to other kids that adult jail time is the consequence of committing crimes have reversed juvenile crime rates there over the past few years. "The worst thing you can do is to send lots of kids to the adult system and then not punish them with jail time," Shorstein says. "It gives them a badge of honor for being an adult criminal without making them pay the price. They end up with even less respect for the adult system than they had for juvenile justice." Shorstein's office sends letters to school students advising them that some of their peers are doing adult time in Duval County Jail, and sends kids in chains and cuffs to talk to other kids about the system being serious about juvenile crime. "We incarcerate more juveniles as adults than any other jurisdiction in the states. But it's actually a quasi-adult system that gives them a chance to not be branded with an adult record."

Some of the "third systems" are applying the boot camp idea, so popular in adult corrections, to young offenders convicted of serious crimes. Boot camps for juveniles are a relatively recent phenomenon, so little is known about their effectiveness. A 1992 Rutgers University survey that identified and described various types of boot camps showed that those run in juvenile systems put considerable emphasis on education, counseling and after care. Other intermediate systems, like the "extended jurisdiction juvenile" category Minnesota created in 1994, allows kids a "last chance" in the youth system before sending them to the adult system. Experts say intermediate or extended jurisdiction concepts have merit when they incorporate age-appropriate programs that have some potential for rehabilitation.

Often, any such program - and hope - is abandoned when large numbers of juveniles are simply sent to adult systems, Snyder says. "You can't expect a kid to spend his developmental years in an adult prison and then come out at some point a grade school teacher. The juvenile justice system has an opportunity and responsibility to help some of these kids. At least we have a shot."

RELATED ARTICLE: Drugs + Guns = Youth Violence

The increase in violent crime among teenagers can be explained in two words: drugs and guns, says Alfred Blumstein. He is a professor with the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

In a forthcoming paper, "Youth Violence, Guns and the Illicit Drug Industry," Blumstein ascribes the boom of the drug industry to the introduction of crack cocaine in the 1980s. He says crack led to many more drug transactions, so traffickers pulled into the business a lot more people from urban, poor, often minority neighborhoods.

"They recruit juveniles, they arm them with guns that are standard tools of the trade in drug markets, and then guns diffuse into the larger community," Blumstein explains.

Violence is a direct and expected result of this growing culture of drugs and guns in urban communities, he said. It becomes commonplace for other teenagers to arm themselves for protection or status. "And I don't have to tell you that kids packing guns is a dangerous, volatile situation," he said.

The drug industry must be brought down, Blumstein theorizes, if many urban communities are to turn around frightening trends in youth violence. "There was great passion to be tough on drug crime during the '80s war on drugs," he said. "But mandatory minimum sentences did almost nothing to affect the drug trade."

Sellers and users caught and jailed are quickly replaced with little impact on the industry. "Incarceration removes crimes from the street only if the crimes leave the street with the offender," Blumstein contends. He proposes:

* Improved enforcement of laws prohibiting young people from having guns. He calls for aggressive action to confiscate guns carried by juveniles on the streets, especially in areas with the highest homicide rates. Blumstein also says that the illegal gun market is flourishing alongside the drug trade, and kids are major consumers.

* Tighten U.S. borders to more effectively reduce the flow of drugs. Blumstein cites estimates that one-third of drugs produced in Latin America are distributed in the states. This will require aggressive, international law enforcement efforts in border states, he says.

* Change asset seizure provisions, moving that money to general funds instead of turning most of it over directly to law enforcement agencies. "Government needs resources for treatment and prevention to help get at the drug culture," he said. Those same funds, going largely unaccounted for to law enforcement agencies, give them little incentive to wipe out major drug markets, according to Blumstein.

* Criminal law alone has proved ineffective in reducing drug use, Blumstein says. He recommends investing in a medical approach to dealing with addicts.

Blumstein's research shows arrest rates for drug crime and homicide among nonwhite youths have followed the same growth curve since the mid-1980s. Other social scientists point to a broader variety of factors including out-of-wedlock births, family dysfunction, media violence and limited economic opportunity as causes of and correlates to youth violence. Most agree, however, on this important prediction: The age distribution of the U.S. population in the coming years will mean more kids committing more violent crimes if we do not now attack root causes.

RELATED ARTICLE: "Third Systems" Offer Last Chance for Serious Juvenile Offenders

States are redesigning juvenile justice with "intermediate" or "third systems" designed to handle serious, repeat and violent juvenile offenders with adult punishment while also providing appropriate treatment.

Colorado's "Youthful Offender System" created in 1993 as a part of the adult corrections department is designed to break down gang affiliations and address patterns of thinking that result in youthful criminal behavior and acts of violence. Heavy on treatment, discipline and successful transition back into society, a low staff-to-offender ratio distinguishes the Youthful Offender System from the traditional approach to violent juveniles that often houses them with less serious young offenders or in an adult prison. Courts sentence offenders to the system for a 2- to 6-year commitment that includes community corrections placement and community supervision during the last 6 to 12 months. Youths can have their adult sentences enforced if they commit new crimes or otherwise do not meet program requirements - a strong motivation to do well.

Other states have followed Colorado's lead with intermediate, last-chance systems or facilities as part of adult corrections departments. Wisconsin created the Youthful Offender Program that mandates a 5-year commitment for youths waived to adult system. Juveniles must stay in the program until they are 25 if they commit more serious crimes that would have been felonies punishable by a maximum term of life imprisonment.

Florida has created a boot-camp-style, basic training program for repeat and chronic juvenile offenders who are waived to the adult system, Offenders typically have committed property crimes like robbery or drug offenses. Those who successfully complete the 120-day minimum program will not have to serve their adult sentences and will receive post-release supervision.

North Carolina, also using the boot camp concept, created a labor-intensive, community service IMPACT program for 16- to 25-year-olds sentenced as adults, The program's disciplinary component is supplemented with education and rehabilitation.

Minnesota has created an intermediate system with an "extended jurisdiction juveniles" category that gives young offenders who otherwise would be in the adult system a last chance in the juvenile system. Now youths up to 21 come under the juvenile courts' jurisdiction, similar to a long-time program of the California Youth Authority. Programs are tailored to meet individual needs. If a participant violates the conditions of the stayed sentence, the court may activate the adult sentence without notice.

Arizona and Nebraska are building intermediate facilities to manage the growing number of juveniles sent to the adult system, but they do not give young offenders a last-chance opportunity to suspend their sentences. They will, however, offer skills training and extensive treatment.

In Arizona, the new facilities will house juveniles until age 18 when they are transferred to adult prisons. Nebraska's program will keep them until they are 19.

- Alan Karpelowitz, NCSL

Donna Hunzeker is NCSL's criminal justice expert.
COPYRIGHT 1995 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Hunzeker, Donna
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 1995
Previous Article:Time to talk about senior tax breaks?
Next Article:An ounce of prevention.

Related Articles
An ounce of prevention.
Young & arrestless.
The Wrong Answer to Littleton.
Juvenile Sexual Homicide.
Biased coverage.
Reynolds v. City of Anchorage.
Reynolds v. City of Anchorage.
Locked away forever: almost 10,000 Americans are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters