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Adult Jails Are No Place for Kids

October 13, 2002|Vincent Schiraldi and Marc Schindler | Vincent Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute. Marc Schindler is a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center.

WASHINGTON -- The recent trial of Derek and Alex King, the 12- and 13-year-old Florida brothers who killed their father after being sexually molested by a neighbor, has refocused national attention on the practice of trying juveniles as adults. Florida, where the boys face life sentences and where one out of every eight juveniles in America's adult prisons is locked up, is once again the battleground for this debate.

But like the nationally publicized case of Lionel Tate, a Florida 12-year-old who received a sentence of life without possibility of parole, the King brothers' case does more to distract from the real issues of trying children as adults than it does to inform them.

That's because in Florida, the majority of youths prosecuted in adult courts are tried for nonviolent offenses. Only 2% were tried for murder, the crime we most often hear about when this issue is brought up. Nearly half had one or no prior felony convictions. In most of the cases, youths were sent to adult court without having had a chance to be rehabilitated by the state's most intensive level of juvenile justice programs.

Instead of focusing on anomalies, we need to look at more typical cases like that of Adam Bollenback, a 17-year-old mentally disabled boy with a history of substance abuse. At age 16, Adam stole a six-pack of beer from a neighbor's garage and then managed to slip away from a patrol car after being caught. Not only was he prosecuted as an adult; he was given a 10-year prison sentence. During the sentencing, Judge Ric Howard noted approvingly, "This sentence is going to break your spirit right now."

Following the sentencing, Adam's lawyer asked that the boy be segregated from adult inmates, but Howard rejected the request, stating, "He's an adult, and he's going to be treated as an adult."

In an interview following the sentencing, the garage owner, Charlotte Coadic, said, "If I had known [his age], I wouldn't have called the cops, I would have given him a good tongue-lashing and sent him home."

But while the King brothers' case was widely covered by the news media, Adam's received limited local coverage. Unless you read the St. Petersburg Times, it is unlikely you have heard of him.

Nor is it likely you heard about Anthony Laster, a 15-year-old near-deaf, mentally retarded boy, also from Florida. Anthony was prosecuted as an adult in Palm Beach County after his first arrest. His crime? He stole $2 from another boy in middle school. No weapon. No physical harm to the victim. A classic lunch-money theft resulting in young Anthony spending the first Christmas after his mother died in an adult jail.

What's going on here? Has the behavior of America's young people really deteriorated so badly that we need to hand out adult time for petty crime? What happens when we dispatch these hapless youngsters into adult prisons? And, perhaps most important, is our punitive approach to youth crime an effective way to address public safety, or are we just sending young people to graduate schools for crime?

The most recent national crime statistics show that youth crime is at its lowest level in decades. According to the FBI, between 1993 and 2000 there was a 74% decline in homicides by youths, eclipsing the decline in homicides by adults during the same period. This put killings by kids at the lowest level in decades.

The same is true with overall youth crime. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, in 1998 youth crime was at its lowest level in the 25-year history of the survey.

Still, record numbers of young people are incarcerated in America's adult prisons and jails, where evidence shows that they are at great risk for their personal safety. During the 1990s, 47 states made it easier to try juveniles as adults, and there are approximately 17,000 minors in America's adult prisons and jails on any given day.

This, despite the fact that research shows that when young people are locked up with adults, they are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and eight times more likely to commit suicide as when they are confined in juvenile facilities.

In Florida, a Miami Herald report found that youths in the state's adult prisons were 21 times more likely to report being assaulted or injured as children in juvenile facilities. Michael Myers, a 16-year-old from Broward County, was sent into Florida's adult prisons and, by age 17, was dead. On May 8, 1997, Michael's future roommate, an adult inmate with an extensive and violent prison record, wrote to the Department of Corrections, "I will do my best to injure any roommate I may receive in the future." A year later, Michael was placed in this inmate's cell and was strangled to death by him.

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