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Teen crime adult time: each year, thousands of juvenile offenders are sent to adult prisons. Does the practice discourage criminal behavior--or is it cruel and unusual punishment?

As a young teen, Jason Elliot (not his real name) bounced between his mother's and grandmother's homes in East Baltimore, Maryland. A severe learning disability made school extremely difficult for Jason. At age 15, he dropped out of school and moved into a housing project with older friends, where alcohol, drugs, and guns were commonplace.

Soon, Jason began to sell marijuana. "I made bad decisions," he admits now. Those decisions led to Jason's involvement in a shootout over a drug deal gone wrong. During the scuffle, he shot someone, who suffered minor injuries.

Jason, then 16, was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and possession of a firearm. Under Maryland law, anyone 16 or older who commits a violent crime is automatically charged as an adult. Although Jason had no previous criminal record, his public defender was unable to get his case transferred to juvenile court.

While awaiting trial, Jason spent a year in the Baltimore City Jail--a largely adult facility. There he was forced to participate in a "square dance," a fight between juvenile inmates organized by prison guards. I was really scared," Jason recalls. Soon afterward, he was attacked by a group of inmates who sliced his nose with a razor, partially cutting it from his face.

Through a plea bargain, Jason received a sentence of nine years. Five years were suspended, meaning he would have to serve only four years in prison. He was transferred to Maryland's Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI), which lacked a juvenile unit. At 17, Jason was the youngest inmate at ECI. His 27-year-old cellmate was serving a 35-year sentence for murder.

A Second Chance

After more than a year at ECI, Jason's original sentence was reduced, and he was released on parole. His good behavior while in prison, letters from his friends and family, and his public defender helped convince the judge to shorten Jason's sentence.

"The best thing that ever happened to me was being released," Jason told JS. "I took advantage of opportunities I never pursued before."

He enrolled in the Job Corps and earned a carpentry diploma. Now 25, Jason travels frequently as a public speaker and educator on teen rights, juvenile crime prevention, and juvenile justice reform.

Jason knows he made bad decisions. The question is, should the bad decisions a teen or preteen makes have the same long-term consequences they have for an adult?

Jennifer Woolard, a juvenile justice specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., thinks that trying all kids who disobey the law as adults does them and society an injustice. It is a mistake, she says, to "treat large numbers of adolescents as if they were adults and were already mature in the ways that they think and make decisions."

Jason was released after two years, but some minors must complete much longer sentences. While each state has its own laws, in all states juveniles can be tried and sentenced in the adult criminal justice system for certain felonies. The minimum age requirement varies among states: It's 14 in California, 12 in Montana, and 10 in Indiana. A person with a felony conviction cannot vote or join the military and may lose out on future job opportunities, as well as financial aid for college.

Tougher Laws

The difficulties of dealing with juvenile offenders is centuries old. Before the first juvenile court in the U.S. was created in 1899, young people who committed crimes went through the adult court system and were often punished harshly. For the next 70 years or so, the juvenile justice system tried to rehabilitate youthful offenders.

But, by the 1980s, the system began to place more emphasis on punishment and public safety. That trend continued throughout the 1990s. Between 1992 and 1997, nearly every state toughened its laws on juvenile crime. At the time, a spike in youth crime rates and gang-related violence had alarmed the public.

Since 1996, juvenile crime rates have actually dropped. Nonetheless, there is still a perception among many people that today's teens are more violent and out of control than in generations past.

Supporters of putting minors into the adult criminal-justice system, like Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Tucker of Riverside County, California, believe: "A serious, violent crime deserves adult time. A murder is a murder regardless of the age of the perpetrator." Supporters also argue that giving teens long sentences in adult prisons will deter (discourage) others from committing similar crimes.

Besides, these supporters say, some youthful offenders are beyond rehabilitation. In December, a Missouri teen was sentenced to five life sentences for a violent rampage in which he shot a man in the head. He had a criminal record seven years long. "What we have here is a 16-year-old who has demonstrated ... he can be nothing but evil," said an assistant prosecutor who tried the case.

But critics of this approach say that it doesn't work, and that there are too many risks. "It's really dangerous to put kids in adult prisons," says Marc Schindler of the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C. "They get assaulted, beaten up, and often try to commit suicide."

In 2003, a 17-year-old boy serving time at Tehachapi State Prison in California committed suicide. This happened less than two months after two teenage boys being held in the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail also tried to take their own lives.

"A lot of systems are just warehousing these kids," claims Nancy Ginsburg of the Legal Aid Society in New York City. "Are they getting real treatment for their needs? Not usually."

"Never Give Up"

There are some signs that the tide may be turning. In 2003, Illinois passed a law that began to roll back sentencing laws passed in the 1990s. And recently, in Washing ton, D.C., a measure to treat teen offenders as adults was overwhelmingly defeated.

"It's heartening that folks are taking a second look at this and saying, 'Maybe we went too far,'" says Schindler.

After his experience in prison, Jason strongly believes that "the adult system is no place for a juvenile." He is grateful he was given another chance. Today, he dreams of owning his own construction company. Meanwhile, he welcomes the opportunity to help others by sharing his story.

"I am the voice of all these kids in the system right now," Jason says. "I'm living proof to never give up on the youth."

Words to Know

* aggravated assault: a reckless attack with intent to harm.

* felony: a serious crime, such as murder, assault, or robbery.

* plea bargain: an agreement made between the defense and the prosecution in a criminal case. The defendant, or individual on trial, usually agrees to plead guilty to a less serious charge in exchange for a lighter sentence.

* public defender: a lawyer paid by the state to represent accused individuals who cannot afford legal assistance.

* punitive: inflicting punishment.

* rehabilitate: reform or restore.
Your Turn

WORD MATCH

1. defendant A. serious crime

2. felony B. inflicting
 punishment

3. plea C. prevent
 bargain

4. punitive D. individual
 required to
 answer
 charges in a
 court of law

5. deter E. agreement
 between a
 defendant and
 prosecutor


THINK ABOUT IT

1. What are the arguments for and against trying juvenile offenders as adults?

2. Do you think giving teens long sentences in adult prisons deters crime? Why or why not?

USA Teen Crime, Adult Time

* OBJECTIVE

Students should understand

* the differences between how juveniles and adults are treated in the nation's criminal justice system.

* TEACHING STRATEGY

Ask students: "Do you think that because of your age you act in a way that an adult would not?"

* BACKGROUND

Today, there are about 70 juvenile offenders in the U.S. on death row. Thirty-one states ban the execution of juveniles. Last fall, the Supreme Court took up a case that considers the constitutionality of the death penalty for juveniles who commit murder and other serious crimes. The case, Roper v. Simmons, involves a convicted felon who was sentenced to death for a murder he committed when he was 17. The Court has yet to decide the case.

* CRITICAL THINKING

COMPREHENSION: What are some arguments against sentencing juvenile offenders as adults? (Critics argue that juveniles lack the emotional and intellectual maturity to foresee the consequences of their actions. Child advocates also cite the physical and emotional dangers juvenile criminals face in adult prisons.)

CAUSE AND EFFECT: What led to the tougher sentencing laws for juvenile offenders? (A spike in juvenile crime rates in the 1990s, along with gang-related violence, led states to toughen their laws.)

* ACTIVITY

UNEQUAL JUSTICE: Statistics show that minority youth are more likely than white youth convicted of similar crimes to receive harsher prison sentences. What factors might explain this disparity in the criminal justice system? Instruct students to explore the issue by writing a research paper that cites some racial, socioeconomic, or cultural factors.

STANDARDS

SOCIAL STUDIES, GRADES 5-8

* Power, authority, and governance: How juvenile offenders can be tried in the adult criminal justice system for certain felonies.

* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How states vary in their efforts to rehabilitate or sentence juveniles for their crimes.

RESOURCES

PRINT

* Carrel, Annette, It's the Law! :A Young Person's Guide to Our Legal System (Volcano Press, 1994). Grades 7-8.

* Barr, Roger, Juvenile Crime (Greenhaven Press, 1998). Grades 6-8.

WEB SITES

* National Criminal Justice Reference Service ncjrs.org

* Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program ojjdp.ncjrs.org

Word Match, p. 15

1. D

2. A

3. E

4. B

5. C
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Author:Poliak, Lisa
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 24, 2005
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