Too Many Youths Facing Adult Justice

by Jeffrey A. Butts
August 25, 2004

WASHINGTON — In its coming term, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether convicted criminals can be sentenced to die for crimes committed before age 18. The case before the court is widely described as a challenge to America’s “juvenile death penalty.” This terminology is wrong. Since the court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, all offenders sentenced to death by U.S. courts were tried and convicted as adults, including those under age 18 at the time of their crimes. These younger offenders were reclassified as adults and transferred to adult courts for prosecution.

It may be convenient to call all youths under age 18 juveniles, but it is legally incorrect and morally evasive. Legally, a person is either a juvenile or an adult. Unless we are fully prepared to think of teens as adults, we should not prosecute them as adults, whether they face capital punishment, imprisonment or probation.

If the thought of executing 16-year-olds is inherently disturbing, we are debating the wrong policy. We should be re-evaluating our methods for denying youths their legal status as juveniles.

Juvenile status can be taken away by prosecutors, judges or legislators. Georgia, New Hampshire, Texas, Wisconsin and nine other states have simply defined all 17-year-olds as adults for criminal prosecution. Connecticut, New York and North Carolina define all youths ages 16 and older as adults.

Many states withdraw juvenile status one case at a time. Maryland considers all 16-year-olds to be adults once they are charged with certain violent offenses and weapon crimes. Idaho and North Dakota automatically convert 14-year-olds to adult status when they are charged with specific drug violations.

The number of youths affected by such laws is immense compared with the number at risk of execution. Since 1976, according to the American Bar Association, just 22 prisoners have been executed for offenses committed before 18. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that more than 100,000 youths under 18 are tried as adults every year; about 5,000 are sent to adult prison.

Most youths in adult prison are not murderers. According to the Justice Department, of all state prison inmates under 18 in 1997 (the most recent data available), just 15 percent had been convicted of murder, rape or sexual assault. Most were charged with robbery, drug crimes, assaults and property offenses.

Certainly, these youths should be punished, but protecting the public safety requires us to keep them from committing future crimes as well. Locking teens away in adult prison does not do that. Research shows that young people held in adult facilities rather than juvenile programs commit even more crimes upon release. Yet lawmakers continue to herd juveniles into the adult justice system, where they are more likely to be abused and injured and less likely to receive educational and rehabilitative services.

Juvenile programs can work.

In Missouri – ironically, the source of the Supreme Court’s “juvenile” death penalty case (Roper vs. Simmons) – the juvenile justice system has been redesigned with great success. Missouri’s Division of Youth Services keeps many youths out of prison-like institutions and instead gives them treatment and services in smaller, more home-like settings. Research shows this reduces future crime.

In 10 cities, including Dayton, Ohio, Marquette, Mich., and Seattle, officials are working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to break the link between drug use and juvenile crime by better coordinating juvenile courts and drug treatment agencies. These are the examples lawmakers should follow, not worn adages such as “adult time for adult crime.”

The Supreme Court will soon review the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty even though no “juveniles” are at risk of capital punishment. Our confusion over terminology suggests that despite legal labels, Americans do not really believe 16-year-olds are the same as adults. If we honestly examine our attitudes about age and legal responsibility, capital punishment may turn out to be the tip of the iceberg.

Jeffrey Butts directs youth justice research at the Urban Institute. The opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its sponsors.

Copyright 2004 The Baltimore Sun