Adult Crime, Adult Time? A Rising Debate

Some say getting tougher with teen criminals is the answer. Others say it will make tougher criminals

By ANGIE CANNON
Philadelphia Inquirer — Washington Bureau
May 10, 1997

A few months ago, 14-year-old DeShawn Sims was charged as a grown-up for a spree of carjacking, rape, armed robbery and assault in Detroit.

In the old days, the seventh grader would have been treated as a juvenile. Possible punishment: a couple of years in a youth home.
Now, if convicted, he could get life in prison.

Like thousands of other teenagers across the country, Sims has been swept up by a profound philosophical shift in the way young offenders are handled by the courts.

In the last few years, more than 40 states have changed their laws to make it easier to try more youths as adults. In Michigan, the new law took effect just four days before Sims was arrested. Now Congress is likely to pass a bill with even broader implications for juvenile felons, one that youth advocates say could wipe out any chance of turning them around.

The proposed law would require the federal government to try juveniles 14 and older as adults for serious drug and violent crimes. In some cases, they could be tried as adults at 13. Currently, the age in federal court is 16. States that want to share in more than a billion dollars of federal law-enforcement money would have to lower the age for some crimes to 15 and open juvenile criminal records to public scrutiny.

The House approved the measure Thursday on a vote of 286-132. The Senate has yet to take up the bill, which generally is supported by the White House and opposed by liberal Democrats who called it extreme.

The measure’s effect on the federal system is largely symbolic, because so few youths are tried on federal charges. But its effect on states could further propel a get-tough movement already occurring there.

Historically, the juvenile justice system has been grounded in rehabilitating, not punishing, youths. The new focus is on protecting the public. Critics believe that juvenile courts are too lenient and neither rehabilitate offenders nor deter crime.

Even though statistics show a decline in the overall rate of juvenile violent crimes, high-profile crimes have bred public outrage and political pressure. Thus, state legislatures and now Congress are seeking longer, more-certain sentences.

“The general public’s attitude is to do the most restrictive thing we can,” said Joe Andrews, a spokesman for the Ohio prison system. “These kids don’t come to us because they skipped Sunday school.”

The other side of the debate is voiced by young offenders’ advocates, who worry that the get-tough mood will in fact result in more hardened criminals and that more teenagers will be victimized by adult prisoners.

They point to cases such as that of Damico Watkins, 17, who was held in the Madison Correctional Institution in Ohio for armed robbery. Last year, he was stabbed to death by six adult felons. Armed with homemade knives, they forced the guard out of the juvenile cell block and stabbed Watkins 79 times.

“The message is: We don’t care if he has fuzzy cheeks and will be raped by other inmates, he is going in adult prison,” said Hunter Hurst, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit research organization in Pittsburgh. “The American people have been inflamed to believe there is a growing menace. It is as if we are afraid of our children.”

Rep. Bill McCollum (R., Fla.), who sponsored the legislation, sees no danger of abuse of youths at the hands of hardened adult prisoners. He noted that, under the bill, juveniles under 16 years old are not supposed to be held where they would have “regular contact” with adult inmates.

Still, a 1994 Justice Department report said that 36 states put young inmates in housing with adult inmates. Jeffrey Butts, a senior research associate at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, called that “a recipe for disaster.”

“You only have the good intentions of corrections officials,” he said. “You might have very good programs in some states, but in less-progressive states, you might have 14-year-olds in with adults.”

Juvenile courts handled more than 1.5 million cases in 1994, according to the most recent statistics from the Justice Department. Only 1 percent were transferred to adult criminal court by judges. That percentage has held steady over the last decade, but the number of youths grew from 7,200 in 1985 to 12,300 in 1994.

The age at which states move juveniles to adult courts varies. Some states permit transfers at age 12, and about a dozen states have no minimum age limit. The typical age is 16, but 14 is no longer rare.

Responding to recent public outcry, most states have either lowered the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults, expanded the crimes for which they could be tried as adults, or given prosecutors more power to decide how juveniles will be tried.

McCollum’s legislation, called the Juvenile Crime Control Act of 1997, goes further, said Mark I. Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, an organization in Washington that represents youths. “It does all three things at once,” Soler said. “This is a radical departure.”

Only about 200 youths – predominantly American Indians who live on federal property – are tried annually in the federal system. But the federal system often becomes a model for states in law enforcement.

In addition, the proposed legislation would require states to try youths as adults if the states want to receive about $1.5 billion in federal grants, largely for building more juvenile correctional facilities and hiring more prosecutors. These rules would apply to anyone at least 15 accused of committing murder, deliberate manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, or aggravated assault with a gun.

Besides the potential for abuse in adult prisons, several studies suggest that juveniles who spend time in adult prison are more likely to commit crimes again. Florida researchers found that juveniles in the adult system had a 30 percent recidivism rate, compared with 19 percent for youths prosecuted in juvenile court.
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