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Youth crime ... adult time: as more states make it easier to lock up teenagers in adult prisons, what's become of juvenile justice? (National).

SHAUN MILLER WAS 15 WHEN HE made the biggest mistake of his life. On an October night in 1998, he and three other teens robbed a convenience store in a small desert town in Nevada. The oldest member of the group, who was 19, planned the crime and held a gun to the cashier's head. Shaun, who was unarmed, took $726 from the cash register. The incident was caught on videotape, and Shaun's life changed forever.

Nevada, like most other states, joined a movement in the 1990s to crack down on juvenile crime, making it easier to punish teens as adults. Traditionally, in the juvenile system, the emphasis has been on treatment and education. Under the adult system, the emphasis is more on punishment than rehabilitation. Shaun was tried as an adult, sentenced to 15 years in prison, and placed among inmates 10 to 20 years older.

"I just don't get it," he says. "There's adults in here for the same kind of crime I committed, who got less time than me--and I was 15. They should have at least gave me a chance at some kind of decent rehabilitation before they put me here. I came straight to prison, like I was John Gotti or something."

In the past decade, 47 states--all but Nebraska, New York, and Vermont--have made it easier to prosecute teens in the adult justice system, reduced confidentiality protections for juveniles, or both. These changes were largely prompted by a surge in violent youth crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The specifics of who goes to the adult system, for which offenses, and at what age, vary widely from state to state. But in four states--Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Nevada--youths of any age are sent automatically to the adult courts for certain serious crimes. The effect is that many young offenders who might once have stayed in the juvenile system are now in prisons alongside violent adults.

"In many respects, 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. "It's a turning toward the criminal justice system with some misguided notion that all we need to do is lock kids up, and that provides public safety."

While many dispute that notion, there is no question that more teens are being locked up. In 1985, according to federal statistics, 3,400 people under 18 entered adult prisons. By 1997, the number had more than doubled, to 7,400.

The numbers don't include teens who committed crimes as juveniles but had turned 18 by the time they went through the judicial process and entered prison--sometimes a year or two later. Nor do they include about 7,800 teens who, on an average day, are sitting in adult jails, awaiting trial.

THE JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM WAS created 103 years ago in the belief that young people are less responsible for their actions, and more open to rehabilitation than adult criminals. Its goal has been to help youths turn their lives around, while protecting their identities, so they are not burdened with criminal records in adulthood.

Since the 1990s, however, many lawmakers have begun to fault rehabilitation for failing to hold down juvenile delinquency. They see the juvenile system as outdated--naively inappropriate for today's savvy teens, and not doing enough to protect the public. In many circles, the philosophy of juvenile justice has shifted to deterrence.

"Criminal behavior warrants punishment," says James Backstrom, a prosecutor in the Minneapolis area with extensive juvenile experience. "I think 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."

GIVING A SECOND CHANCE TO A troubled youth who's made a mistake sounds great, many prosecutors say, but the justice system's real goal needs to be preventing a crime from happening again.

"The adult system is superior to the juvenile system in its power to incapacitate 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."

Does that better protect the public? Mark Soler of the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C., doesn't think so. 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 is counterproductive," Soler says. "It creates more crime."

John Momot, the lawyer who defended Shaun Miller, is even more pessimistic: "You take a kid who's 15 years old, 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 crime."

UNDER PREVIOUS JUVENILE LAW, AGE determined who was tried in juvenile court; today, it's more the nature of the offense that decides. Some of the differences between adult crime and juvenile crime are lost in the process.

Teenagers, for instance, tend to commit crimes in groups. Because those groups involve leaders and followers, advocates say young people should not all bear equal responsibility.

But when state laws require everyone of a certain age who is charged with a certain crime to be tried as an adult, the question of whether a teen was the leader or the follower does not matter. Most adult cases regard all participants the same, whether they pull the trigger or merely drive the getaway car.

Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, based in Washington and San Francisco, believes such laws have cast too wide a net, trapping many teens in the adult system who don't belong there. "The majority of kids being tried as adults are being tried for nonviolent crimes," he says.

About 200,000 juveniles were tried as adults in 1998, according to the latest estimate by the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Precise numbers--and a breakdown of the charges--are hard to come by, experts say, because law-enforcement agencies don't track juveniles who begin their justice odyssey in the adult system, as many now do. In 28 states, all teens over a certain age--which varies from state to state--who are charged with particularly serious crimes, such as murder, go automatically to the adult courts, regardless of individual circumstances.

Ironically, most of the get-tough laws were enacted at the same time that many communities passed harsher youth curfew laws. Schiraldi says the message to teens was, "You're too young to stay out late, but you're old enough to go to adult prison."

THAT DOUBLE STANDARD ISN'T LOST on Shaun Miller, who has already served two years of his sentence, and won't be eligible for parole until 2005, when he's 23. Shaun, who dropped out of school in ninth grade, is working on his GED, and has big dreams of starting his own business some day. But he's well aware of the challenges he'll have to overcome.

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

In the meantime, Shaun is growing up. Now 19 years old, he's spent his last three birthdays behind bars, learning from his fellow prison inmates, as he puts it, "a whole lot of stuff I shouldn't have learned."

"It's just a bunch of criminals inside a barbed-wire fence," Shaun says. "The only thing you do is walk around and listen to everyone tell their criminal stories."


To help students understand why there is a push to punish youthful offenders as adults, and why opponents of this movement say treating young people as adults only teaches them to become adult criminals.

Discussion Questions:

* Do you agree that young people who commit violent crimes should be tried as adults?

* Do you think the crackdown on juvenile offenders will help reduce juvenile crime?

* Do you agree with Minneapolis prosecutor James Backstrom that teens who reach the age of 16 or 17 should be held accountable for their actions?


Before Reading: Have students study the photo on page 9. Then ask them to describe how they would feel if they were the young man about to enter the cell.

Critical Thinking/Debate: Direct students to Marsha Levick's comment on page 11. Have them debate the merits of her argument that locking up juvenile offenders to provide public safety is misguided.

Next, address the leader-vs.-follower issue. Tell students that adult accomplices in serious crimes--murder, for example--may be charged with the most serious offenses even if they themselves did not commit them. Ask students to vote and discuss. Are leaders and followers equally guilty? Are teenage followers of teenage criminals less culpable than adult followers of adult criminals?

Trial By (Student) Jury: Have students role-play aspects of Shaun Miller's case. A student playing a prosecutor should question another playing the store cashier about the cashier's state of mind during the robbery. Have "jurors" explain whether the nature of the crime should influence the type of punishment for Miller. A student playing Miller's attorney should explain why Miller is less guilty than the teen who planned the crime and used the gun and, citing information from the article, make an argument that sending Miller to an adult prison will only hurt society in the future.

Web Watch: Log on to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at Click on. Facts & Figures to see juvenile justice statistics.

There were 7,000 inmates
under the age of 18 in
adult prisons in 1998.

AGE 15 280 KIDS 4%
AGES 17-18 5,320 KIDS 79%
AGE 16 1,330 KIDS 19%

Note: Table made from pie chart.



Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1998
data (most recent available)

With reporting by SARA RIMER of The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:most states pemit the prosecution of juveniles as adults
Author:Rimer, Sara
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 21, 2002
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