Juvenile Justice — Deadly Distraction

by Jeffrey A. Butts, January 12, 2003

A Florida court is expected to rule soon on the appeal of Lionel Tate, who was sentenced to life in prison for killing a 6-year-old playmate in 2000 when he was just 12. An adult criminal court in Florida recently convicted brothers Alex and Derek King of killing their father when one was 12 and the other 13. Meanwhile, federal and state authorities debate the most effective method of obtaining a death sentence for 17-year-old John Lee Malvo for his role in the Washington-area sniper case.

These cases involved deadly violence by under-age juveniles, and all attracted international attention. But, we should not allow such headline-grabbing cases to divert attention from a much more pervasive problem: wrong- headed policies that mete out excessive, nonindividualized punishments to juveniles committing non-lethal crimes, while failing to make communities safer.

Compare these statistics: In 2001, there were 1,400 juvenile homicide arrests in the United States; about 200 in California. That same year, nearly 800,000 juveniles (52,000 in California) were arrested for serious, non-lethal crimes, including rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and drug offenses.

Prosecution of these juveniles is increasingly controlled by automatic, legislatively determined sentencing that lets politicians, not judges, decide who should be incarcerated, who should be tried and punished as an adult, and who should be sent to a juvenile program for treatment and supervision.

In the rush to get tough on crime during the 1980s and 1990s, state laws were changed so that complicated questions of child development and legal responsibility now are settled in the state capitol, not in the courtroom.

These policies are misguided on at least two fronts. First, they don’t achieve what most citizens want: safer communities in which residents can walk the streets free of muggings, gang warfare, drug dealing and the like by alienated youth.

Simply putting young offenders in the adult justice system does not reduce crime. Studies suggest that juveniles tried as adults are even more likely to commit new crimes than those whose cases are judged in juvenile courts.

Second, automatic sentencing condemns thousands of youngsters to long periods behind bars for non-lethal crimes that, given their age, the nature of their infractions and current thinking about child development, may not be warranted.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Some states have developed effective approaches to crime reduction that both enhance community safety and deliver age-appropriate penalties for young offenders. These approaches depend on a broad mix of programs and graduated punishments
tailored to offenders’ ages and unique circumstances.

In Kentucky, state officials place many young offenders in small, family-like settings instead of putting every youth, regardless of age or crime, in large correctional institutions. Treatment alternatives developed in South Carolina have reduced long-term rates of re-arrest among serious offenders. In Portland, Oregon, when officials boosted community supervision programs, pre- trial juvenile detention dropped 80 percent without any increase in crime by youth awaiting trial.

Policymakers also should reconsider the arbitrary line between childhood and adulthood that shifts according to public referendum or legislative fiat. Many European countries no longer group offenders into just two categories, juvenile or adult. Germany, for instance, uses four. Criminal penalties do not apply to children at all until age 14. German teenagers (ages 14 through 17) face slightly stiffer penalties, and the heat is turned up even more for young adults (ages 18 through 20) until full criminal responsibility applies at age 21.

Courts in Germany can move young offenders up or down a category, but such decisions depend upon the circumstances of each case, not the political climate. The loss of human life should give the courts and the rest of us pause.

But shouldn’t we be just as concerned about imposing life sentences on 12- year-olds? If legislators stopped sentencing juvenile offenders from the state capitol and instead directed courts to develop age-appropriate, individualized sentences for all offenders, young murderers would still be punished, but thousands of other young people would not be sacrificed so easily to formulaic, pre-packaged adult justice. And our communities would be safer, too.

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Jeffrey Butts directs youth justice research at the Urban Institute in Washington. Any views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Urban Institute, its board, or sponsors.

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