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California and the West

Activists Say Courts Abuse Rights of Juvenile Defendants

Report: Amnesty International cites life sentences without parole as example. State spokesman calls allegation 'a stretch.'


WASHINGTON — Amnesty International said today that an increasing number of children in American courts and prisons are subject to beatings, excessive detention, solitary confinement and other abuses of their rights.

Many of the abuses, according to the report, violate international treaties. As an example, Amnesty International, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to protecting human rights, cited California for sentencing juveniles to life sentences without parole.

The report said 14 prisoners now serving life without parole in California had been sentenced when they were under 18. This, according to the organization, violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty signed and ratified by the United States. The Amnesty International report cited no other abuse of accused or convicted juveniles in California.

Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for the California attorney general's office in Sacramento, said he could not corroborate the Amnesty International figures for children sentenced as adults in California. But he said the state has the right to set its own laws on the matter.

"Californians elect their legislators and their governor to write the laws of their criminal justice system, and they should not have to abdicate that authority to foreign treaties approved by someone in Washington," he said.

"Critics of prosecuting juveniles as adults should come make their case at the state Capitol."

Larry Brown, executive director of the Sacramento-based California District Attorney's Assn., said Amnesty's criticism was wrongheaded.

"It seems a stretch to think that the drafters of any treaty would have in mind the type of juvenile offenders who receive a life sentence in California--they're not particularly a sympathetic class," he said.

"To receive such a sentence, the crime is first-degree murder with special circumstances. Those are the most heinous homicides on the books. California, like so many other states, when balancing between public safety and treatment of juveniles, for egregious crimes, the balance shifts to public safety."

Amnesty International said it was troubled by the tendency of many states to treat accused juveniles as adults and try them in regular courtrooms. The report estimated that 200,000 children are prosecuted in adult courts every year, 7,000 are held in adult jails before trial, and 11,000 are serving their sentences in adult prisons and other correctional centers.

Amnesty International's negative assessment was the second major indictment of the American juvenile justice system this month. The Justice Department filed suit against Louisiana in early November for failing to provide adequate care for the 1,750 children in its correctional centers.

The Justice Department accused Louisiana officials of "subjecting juveniles to a substantial risk of serious harm resulting from juvenile-on-juvenile assaults, the use of excessive force and abuse by staff, and from inadequate suicide prevention measures."

Illinois established the first American juvenile court in 1899, a model adopted by every state this century. In the last two decades, however, the juvenile system has been weakened, according to Amnesty International, by demands for retribution against a growing number of juvenile offenders and by inadequate facilities for the increased number of young prisoners.

Amnesty International also deplored the tendency to place juveniles in correctional centers for minor crimes. In a survey of juvenile institutions in Georgia in 1997, the organization found a 14-year-old detained for painting graffiti on a wall, an 11-year-old for threatening his teacher, a 16-year-old for defying her father by throwing objects in her room and refusing to attend school, a 13-year-old for stealing $127 from her mother, and several children for cursing their teachers.

Enumerating many cases of abuse, Amnesty International reported accusations against guards in South Carolina for punching, choking and kicking children and spraying them with chemicals, and against guards in Kentucky for using stun guns and pepper spray to break up fights.

The report recounted that guards at the Arizona Boys Ranch had placed 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz of Sacramento in solitary confinement on eight different days last February and then forced him to do push-ups when he complained that he felt too ill to exercise. The boy died in March during the forced push-ups.

The report also complained that two young people were executed this year for crimes committed while they were under 18, and that 70 similar prisoners are waiting on death rows for their execution. Although this is also prohibited by the international covenant on rights, the U.S. government, when ratifying the treaty, filed a reservation against the provision banning these executions.

In the report, Amnesty International said it had recommended to the Clinton administration that it sign without reservation all international treaties protecting the rights of juvenile offenders.

Amnesty International also recommended that state and local authorities review their legislation, policies and practices to ensure that juveniles are jailed "only as a last resort."

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