What can we do When our Kids Become Killers
STEVE RHODES | May 1996
The tragedy, which sparked national outrage, put a spotlight on shortcomings in this state’s juvenile justice system, a system that is ill-equipped to house and treat younger and more violent child criminals. Now 12 and 13, Eric’s killers have become America’s youngest prisoners. The case also brought home to Illinois a problem vexing authorities nationwide: a rise in the number of so-called “superpredators,” cold-blooded murderers who aren’t old enough to get driving permits. “The reality is there are some real changes in a lot of kids’ behavior today, and I don’t think we can hide our heads in the sand,” says Department of Corrections Deputy Director Joanne Perkins, who oversees the state’s juvenile system.
The term “superpredator” was coined by Princeton political scientist John J. Dilulio Jr., who forecasts a surge in violent teen crime. In fact, the under-18 population in America is expected to grow as much 15 percent by the year 2010, from 69 million this year to 74 million. That projected demographic bulge, in combination with what Dilulio sees as a new ruthlessness in child criminals, could wreak havoc on an ill-prepared juvenile justice system.
Indeed, the potential problem has attracted the attention of experts in this state. “We cannot continue to detain more and more kids,” says William Hibbler, presiding judge of the juvenile justice division of the Cook County Juvenile Court. “The sheer number of kids coming into the system will force a solution.” In Illinois, the population of kids 19 and under is expected to grow 9 percent by 2010, to more than 3.5 million. And about a dozen kids age 13 and under are charged with murder each year in Chicago.
Several states already have programs in place to give judges more options with kid criminals, including boot camps, youth ranches, training schools and community-based residential homes. Others offer voluntary restitution or community service. These options allow for the punishment to fit the crime, and keep nonviolent kids out of prison-type environments.
In Illinois, this range of options doesn’t exist. But judges had even less leeway in sentencing younger criminals before the Morse case. They couldn’t send kids under 13 to prison. (Now they can do so if the offender is as young as 10.) The toughest sentence a judge could dole out for those 13 or older was a bed in one of the state’s six youth prisons, which house the oldest and most violent juveniles. The most lenient sentence was probation. (Nationally, 30 percent of the kids taken into custody don’t even get that far; they are released by police with a warning.) Intermediate solutions were few and far between: Kids under the purview of the state Department of Children and Family Services could be sent to residential group homes, but those facilities are not secure, and kids can and do walk away. DCFS could also send kids to locked facilities out of state, provided a spot could be found and the wait endured.
DCFS officials and other advocates had long lobbied for such facilities in Illinois. They provide a serious, intermediate option combining punishment with rehabilitation programs. In fact, state officials had been sending hundreds of juveniles to such facilities in other states each year, often spending three times the $25,000 per year it cost to house a kid in a youth prison. Yet it took the cumulative weight of two tragedies — not just the Morse case — to motivate Illinois politicians to give advocates their wish.
The second is a case that illustrated the effects of a system lacking options. In August 1994, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was a 68-pound, 11-year-old member of the Black Disciples street gang in Chicago. He was also a chronic delinquent, having compiled a long record that included armed robbery at 9 and arson at 10.
That summer Sandifer had come before Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Sumner. Due to abuse allegations against his mother, Sandifer had been staying with his grandmother. But because she wasn’t able to keep him in line, officials at the state’s Department of Children and Family Services decided to put him in Lawrence Hall, a group home on Chicago’s North Side. Sandifer ran away. Another 13 unsecured private facilities rejected him. Officials then decided to send him to an out-of-state locked residential facility, the kind that was outlawed in Illinois at the time. But it can take up to a year, sometimes longer, to make such arrangements. While Sandifer languished on a waiting list, Sumner had the option of letting the boy go or sending him to a temporary detention center, where, under state law, he could not be held for more than 30 days. Agency officials petitioned Sumner to keep Sandifer detained until his name came up on the out-of-state waiting list. Instead, the judge decided he had to let the boy go home to his grandmother.
Less than two months later, while still on the out-of-state waiting list, Sandifer shot an innocent 14-year-old girl while firing at rival gang members. He was then shot and killed under a viaduct by fellow gang members trying to deflect the attention Sandifer’s shooting had brought to the gang. Sandifer and his alleged killers, Derrick and Cragg Hardaway, 14 and 16 respectively, became the state’s first high-profile superpredators.
The Hardaways are awaiting trial. Cragg automatically faces charges as an adult. Derrick made a bid to be tried as a juvenile, which meant he would be released at the age of 21 if he were convicted. But Juvenile Court Judge John Rogers ruled last December the boy would be tried as an adult “for the protection of society.” The minimum sentence for murder in the adult system is 20 years.
Two months after Sandifer’s death, the Morse case made legislative action all the more imperative. Lawmakers overturned the state’s prohibition on housing juveniles in locked residential facilities and lowered the minimum age at which killers can be incarcerated — from 13 to 10. But a year and a half later, Illinois officials seem to have lost momentum. None of the planned juvenile centers are up and running. The state is converting a building on Chicago’s West Side to a 30-bed youth facility, but corrections official Perkins says it won’t be ready until December, at best. The department also plans to license private agencies to provide secure residential living. But that move isn’t expected until the end of the year.
Despite the work of a legislative committee examining the juvenile justice code, no other reforms appear to be on the horizon in Illinois.
Of course, choosing the appropriate public policy response depends on the nature and scope of the problem, and that’s still under debate. Dilulio’s warning of a coming and monstrous menace is not universally accepted. He bases his assessment on FBI statistics showing that arrests of violent teenagers have doubled since 1982, and are expected to double again by 2010. Most of the increase seems to have occurred since 1987. U.S. Justice Department officials say that juvenile responsibility for violent crime reached its lowest level in 20 years in 1987. And while the rates have since risen, they now only match the rates of the early 1970s, the department says, when the term “superpredators” didn’t exist.
One of Dilulio’s chief critics is Mike Males, author of the forthcoming The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents. Males believes political rhetoric and media sensationalism misrepresent the issue. Factor out poverty, he argues, and the teenage crime rate is actually well below that of people in their 20s and 30s, and about the same as those in their 40s. The real problem, he contends, is that America’s children
Other states point the way: Options for dealing with ‘superpredator” kids
Intermediate options are most popular with reformers because they enable service providers to intervene meaningfully early on, helping to prevent kids from escalating to more dangerous behavior. Even at the superpredator stage, however, some judges are reluctant to sentence kids so young to prison.
• Wisconsin is building more locked facilities like its Ethan Allen School for Boys, a former tuberculosis sanitarium in the rolling countryside of Wales. More than 500 kids are currently housed there. In addition, that state’s Youthful Offender Program mandates a five-year commitment for those waived to adult court. 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 life term.
• Colorado created its Youthful Offender System in 1993 to break down gang affiliations and address patterns of criminal behavior. That program is heavy on treatment, discipline and transition, and features a low staff-to-offender ratio. Offenders can be sentenced from two to six years, with the last six to 12 months on community supervision. They can have their adult sentences enforced if they commit subsequent new crimes or don’t meet program requirements. The state uses separate facilities to handle 14- to 18-year-olds sentenced in adult courts.
• Minnesota has a “last chance” program that gives youths otherwise sentenced to the adult system one last chance at the juvenile system, which is designed for youths up to 21. Programs are tailored to individual needs. If conditions of the stayed adult sentence are violated, the adult sentence can be activated.
• Missouri is moving aggressively to community-based programs.
• Arizona and Nebraska use intermediate facilities to house juveniles sent to the adult system, offering skills training and treatment.
• Utah revamped its juvenile justice system in the early 1980s, limiting secure confinement to dangerous juveniles and setting up residential and nonresidential community-based programs for most offenders.
• North Carolina has a labor-intensive community service program for 16- to 25-year-olds sentenced as adults. The disciplinary, boot-camp-like environment is supplemented with treatment and education.
are increasingly growing up impoverished. According to the U.S. Justice Department, 14.6 million juveniles (almost one in four) lived in poverty in 1992, 42 percent more than in 1976. In Illinois, where the juvenile population decreased by 9 percent between 1980 and 1990, 17 percent of juveniles live in poverty. Males and his supporters argue that the “epidemic” of teenage violence is merely the payoff of this neglect. The best way to avoid the creation of superpredators, then, could be a war on poverty.
Other experts, including Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University, call for action against the easy availability of guns and drugs. A 1996 U.S. Justice Department report found that the number of juvenile murders increased 82 percent between 1984 and 1994, and that the growth in juvenile homicides from the mid-1980s through 1994 “was completely firearm-related.” Blumstein blames this on the way the crack trade has burgeoned in the last decade, bringing with it a much more dangerous street culture — although figures show that drug use by juveniles has declined substantially since the 1980s.
Blumstein calls for aggressive action to confiscate guns from juveniles on the streets; tightening the borders to reduce drug flow; spending money seized in drug cases on treatment and prevention programs; and investing in medical instead of criminal intervention in drug cases.
Monica Mahan, a social worker with the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern Law School, agrees with Blumstein. Even if a good, law-abiding boy is given a gun, someone’s going to get hurt, Mahan says. Kids with the opportunity to play with guns will do so, regardless of who they are and where they live, she says. But Mahan disputes the notion of superpredators, a term she calls “a symptom of people who are trying to get a hold on what they perceive as ‘this growing juvenile violence.'” In fact, Mahan sides more with Blumstein than Males, noting that the only increase in juvenile crime is in the category of gun-related violence. Increased poverty, she says, hasn’t resulted in an increase of other types of crime.
But regardless of whether superpredators exist, and what root causes create superpredators, it is clear that the juvenile justice system can do a better job of handling the state’s most dangerous and troubled teenagers than it is doing now. That has been amply demonstrated in the Cook County courtroom of Judge Carol Kelly, who has been struggling in the last few months to cope with Eric Morse’s killers. They were convicted in October 1995, but Kelly virtually threw up her hands when it came time for sentencing. From the bench, she scolded legislators for not funding better treatment programs for teenage criminals. Lacking decent options, Kelly improvised and created her own, sentencing the two boys to prison while demanding that officials develop a comprehensive treatment plan.
Even that approach drew scorn for Illinois’ justice system. The New York Times editorialized that “the prospects for treatment seem poor. In Massachusetts or Missouri, the two would have been sent to facilities with fewer than two dozen beds and extensive psychiatric help. In Illinois, the boys could go to lockdowns with hundreds of others — many of them gangsters who will recreate the [public housing] projects behind bars.”
One was sent to the Illinois Youth Center at Valley View in Kane County, a medium-security prison housing 288 juvenile offenders — the same facility where, according to George Knox, a gang crime expert at Chicago State University, the Vice Lords street gang was founded. The other is in the Illinois Youth Center at Warrenville in DuPage County. That center houses 154 prisoners, including 106 girls. The boys can be held until they are 19, according to corrections officials.
If the boys had lived in any number of other states, they might have wound up in very different circumstances. From California to North Carolina, states are using intermediate facilities. Illinois itself had, by 1994, sent 664 children out of state, at an annual cost of nearly $35 million. The number peaked at nearly 800, and the agency is now trying to reduce the number to about 200, mostly placing kids in contiguous states.
Mahan cites Massachusetts as a state that offers a continuum of care — all services are located in a central place, including probation officers, correctional facilities and social services. So a Massachusetts teenager will likely have the same case manager throughout his or her stay in the system. The teen will be tracked by the case manager as he or she moves from detention back home and through whatever types of social programs are arranged. And that type of movement is made easy by the system, Mahan says.
While there is a lot of discussion of doing something similar in Illinois, Mahan says, a lack of collective and political will prevents it. “They’ve passed two pieces of legislation, and that’s it,” Mahan says of state lawmakers. Mahan would like to see community-based interventions, from keeping schools open until 8 or 9 at night to an army of social workers keeping kids involved in a variety of activities. “People need to think about what they want for their own children,” Mahan says. “Why would they want anything different for someone else’s child?” And why would they want to pay for it? For the $50,000 it can cost to send each kid to an out-of-state locked facility, Mahan says, “I’ll take two,” confident she could do a better job with that kind of money.
There are many critics of reliance on intermediate options, reflecting growing sentiment toward punishment without rehabilitative efforts. More than 700 pieces of legislation were introduced nationwide last year to prosecute minors as adults, according to The New York Times. Males attributes a shift in attitude to irresponsible media coverage, including cover stories in the nation’s newsweeklies. Males cites Gallup Poll figures that show the average American adult believes that youths commit 43 percent of all violent crime in America. The actual figure is 13 percent.
Nevertheless, a number of states are making it easier to throw kids in the clink. Since 1994, at least 13 states have lowered the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults. North Carolina lowered the age to 13. Oklahoma can prosecute 13-year-olds as adults for murder. Tennessee removed age limits altogether in 1994 on certain violent offenses. Indiana moved certain gang-related offenses to the adult courts. Kansas requires 16- and 17-year-olds with one prior serious conviction to be treated as adults for any subsequent felony charge. Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Washington have made similar changes. Florida amended the juvenile code in 1994 to emphasize “public safety” over “the best interests of the child.”
One impetus for moving cases to criminal court is a reaction to the strategy by gangs to use underage kids for dangerous and visible tasks, protecting older gang members from significant punishment. This strategy bubbled up to the popular culture when the new punk band The Offspring scored a radio hit with a song that had the refrain: “Don’t pay no mind, you’re under 18, you won’t be doing any time.”
In fact, the number of cases moved from juvenile court to criminal court increased 41 percent between 1989 and 1993, according to the Justice Department. “But little is known about the impact of this policy,” department officials note. Indeed, prosecuting a teen as an adult doesn’t always ensure tougher punishment. There is substantial evidence that cases moved to adult court often result in less serious sentences. Cases that look pretty serious in juvenile court can look petty in criminal court. “That’s the reality of sending a 15-year-old robbery defendant to the adult system,” says Jeffrey Butts, a senior research associate with the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. According to studies cited by Butts, half the kids sent to adult criminal court are sentenced to probation, with less stringent terms than juvenile court probation, or have their cases dismissed. Twenty-five percent get longer sentences than they would have gotten in juvenile court, and 25 percent get comparable sentences, Butts says.
Butts says laws that lower the age at which a juvenile can be sent to criminal court often result from political posturing, serving to obscure the fact that most states have always allowed such a move under certain circumstances. In many cases, however, the new laws take that decision away from judges, whose work is reviewed by appellate courts, and give it to prosecutors, who can decide on their own where to file a case. An action plan being developed by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges suggests that the effort to treat juveniles more like adults may be misguided. Instead, the council prefers early intervention programs. And with teen killers eventually leaving prison and hitting the streets again, some experts aren’t so sure that just locking them up is in the interest of public safety. If kids coming out of prison are more dangerous than when they go in, the remedy becomes worse than the problem.
Hibbler points out that the juvenile justice system, which was founded in Cook County in 1889 and became the model for the rest of the country, was designed to provide delinquents with individual attention in order to get them out of trouble. That’s why the system was set up differently from criminal court in the first place. Hibbler says this resulted in a less adversarial atmosphere than in adult criminal court, with attorneys acting more on behalf of their clients’ interests than as partisan advocates trying to notch another winning case. That environment, he says, has evaporated.
Hibbler would like to focus on additional options for the vast majority of kids who come through the system and are not superpredators.
Tom Dart, a Chicago Democrat who has been active in juvenile justice issues, says any effort that doesn’t include intermediate facilities and so-called third systems, like youth camps or counseling programs, will be fruitless. But he has little hope that anything will be accomplished soon.
“It’s typical of the way the legislature operates,” Dart says. “When they’ve got the crisis occurring, they’ll come up with some great scheme, but in the end, nothing gets done.