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Lessons Can Be Learned.

With the sentencing of Nathaniel Abraham -- the Michigan boy who became, at age 11, one of the youngest murder defendants in U.S. history -- Americans once again had an opportunity to witness a public debate on the merits and flaws of a justice system we invented 100 years ago: the juvenile court. Indeed, lessons can be learned from the case of Nate Abraham, but only if we look in the right places.

Let us begin where we shouldn't look. We shouldn't look to explain why youth crime is on the increase, as believed by 62 percent of Americans. In fact, all categories of juvenile crime are on the decline, and juvenile homicides have dropped a significant 56 percent since 1993, according to Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States 1998 [1993].

We shouldn't look at why kids commit more violent crimes than adults, as 60 percent of respondents to a 1996 California poll believe. The year that poll was taken, adult arrests for violent crimes in the state outnumbered youth arrests by a 6-1 ratio.

We shouldn't look at why kids are killing at younger and younger ages, a refrain we heard with particular frequency surrounding Abraham's offense. Kids under 13 account for one-tenth of 1 percent of America's homicides. In fact, according to FBI data, homicides by youths under 13 were at their second lowest point in 1998, since they began collecting data in 1965.

We also shouldn't look to the old bromide of trying more youths as adults as our solution either, as occurred in Abraham's case. A study by researchers Donna Bishop and Charles Frazier showed that youths tried as adults were rearrested more quickly, more frequently and for more serious offenses than youths with similar offense backgrounds who were retained in the juvenile justice system. The states that try more youths as adults than any other -- New York and Florida -- continue to have the highest and second highest rates of youth violence in the country, respectively. Apparently, if a teen-ager is locked up with an adult offender, he or she gets more than just a cell mate, the teen gets a role model.

Still, there is much to be learned from Abraham's case. For example, he had a substantial number of contacts with the juvenile justice system prior to the homicide for which he now has been convicted, but little was done by Michigan's Oakland County Juvenile Justice System -- either to help him turn his life around or to properly supervise him. We need to marshal financial and community resources so that no child at risk has to wait for someone to reach out to him or her.

Judge Arthur Moore, who presided over the case, reminded us of this when he chose to sentence Abraham to the juvenile system: "We live in one of the wealthiest counties in the entire nation. Why, then, can't we boast of having the best services for children in the country? Children like Nathaniel can't reach out for help and be placed on a waiting list for six months. To a child, six months is a lifetime."

The circumstances of Abraham's life also offer us a glimpse into some of the problems associated with delinquency as well as some possible solutions. He was being raised by a single mother who, in addition to working two jobs and caring for her other children, also took care of her schizophrenic sister.

Abraham grew up in Pontiac, Mich., a town ravaged by double-digit unemployment and the high crime and gang problems often associated with such poverty. He was essentially left to be raised by the streets.

In a nation in which single-parenthood is on the rise and single parents are increasingly required to go to work rather than being supported in staying home and caring for their children, there is little by way of help for mothers such as Abraham's. Some of those programs that have become derided as "pork" by fiscal conservatives -- after-school programs, recreational programs, boys' and girls' clubs -- clearly would serve the Nates of our poor neighborhoods better than hanging out on the streets.

Again, Moore pointed out in his sentencing decision what this nation needs to prevent more tragedies from unfolding: "If we want to be safe from the kind of crime that Nate committed, we must be prepared with our efforts and wallets to help create programs to stop this tragic waste. We need more recreational programs and youth groups. We need more counselors for children. We need more foster care homes and more support for these generous families. We need better schools. It is only by intervening now and helping to develop mature, responsible, caring, empathic children, that we can assure a safer society. What we sow today, we will reap in the future."

When Congress begins to debate youth crime legislation pending from last year, Nathaniel Abraham's name will undoubtedly be bandied about in support of various proposals. Two juvenile crime bills, authored by senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Congressman Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), would create mandatory sentences for youths, weaken protections against jailing kids with adults, give federal prosecutors sole discretion over trying youths as adults, and fail to adequately ensure funding for prevention. These clearly are sound bites, rather than sound policy, and will do little to help the troubled Nate Abrahams of America.

If Congress really wants to do something about youth crime, it will promote a system that holds youths accountable for their behavior without crippling their chances for success. In other words, if we want fewer Nate Abrahams in America's future, we need to get smart, not just tough, on crime.


Beldon, Russonello and Stewart. 1999. Americans consider juvenile crime, justice and race: Executive summary. Washington, D.C.: Building Blocks for Youth.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1998 [1993]. Uniform crime reports: Crime in the United States 1998 [1993]. Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Vincent Schiraldi is director of the Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization in Washington, D.C.
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Author:Schiraldi, Vincent
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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