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States rethink tough penalties for juveniles

A drop in youth crime leads some experts to champion programs for young offenders. Others support current harsh measures.

December 02, 2007|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press

A generation after America decided to get tough on kids who commit crimes -- sometimes locking them up for life -- the tide may be turning.

States are rethinking and, in some cases, retooling juvenile sentencing laws. They're responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies indicating that teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who aren't: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

"It's really the trifecta of bad criminal justice policy," says Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. "People didn't know that at the time the changes were made. Now we do, and we have to learn from it."

Juvenile crime is down, in contrast to the turbulent 1990s when politicians vied to pass laws to get violent kids off the streets. Now, some support community programs for young offenders to replace punitive measures they say went too far.

"The net was thrown too broadly," says Howard N. Snyder of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. "When you make these general laws . . . a lot of people believe they made it too easy for kids to go into the adult system and it's not a good place to be."

Some states are reconsidering life without parole for teens. Some are focusing on raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, while others are exploring ways to offer kids a second chance once they're locked up -- or even before.

"There has been a huge sea change. . . . It's across the country," says Laurie R. Garduque, a program director at the MacArthur Foundation, which is heavily involved in juvenile justice reform.

However, not everyone believes the harsher penalties should be rolled back.

"The laws that were changed were appropriate and necessary," says Minnesota prosecutor James C. Backstrom. "We need to focus on the protecting the public -- that's No. 1. Then we can address the needs of the juvenile offenders."

Each year about 200,000 defendants under 18 are sent to the adult system, known as criminal court, according to rough estimates.

Most end up there because of state laws that automatically define them as adults because of their age or offense. Their ranks rose in the 1990s as juvenile crime soared and 48 states made it easier to transfer kids into criminal court, according to the juvenile justice center.

These changes gave prosecutors greater latitude -- they could transfer kids without a judge's permission -- and lowered the age or expanded the crimes that would make it mandatory for a case to be tried there.

Some states also adopted blended sentences in which two sanctions could be imposed simultaneously. If the teen follows the terms of the juvenile sentence, the adult sentence is revoked.

The changes were intended to curb the explosion in violence -- the teen murder arrest rate doubled from 1987 to 1993 -- and to address mounting frustrations with the juvenile justice system.

A series of horrific crimes by kids rattled the nation: A sixth-grader shot and killed a stranger. A 12-year-old stomped and beat a younger playmate. Two grade-schoolers dropped a 5-year-old 14 stories to his death.

Some academics warned that a new generation of "super-predators" would soon be committing mayhem.

It never happened. Drug-trafficking declined. An improved economy produced more jobs. And the rate of juvenile violent crime arrests plummeted 46% from 1994 to 2005, federal figures show.

"When crime goes down, people have an opportunity to be more reflective than crisis-oriented and ask, 'Was this policy a good policy?' " Bilchik says.

The MacArthur Foundation said in a report to be released this month that about half the states were involved in juvenile justice reform.

And a national poll, commissioned by MacArthur and the Center for Children's Law and Policy and set for release at the same time, also found widespread public support for rehabilitating teens rather than locking them up.

Some states have already begun to make changes.

In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter recently formed a juvenile clemency board to hear cases of kids convicted as adults. The head of the panel says it's an acknowledgment that teens are different from adults -- a point made in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed as juveniles. In 2006, the state replaced the juvenile life-without-parole sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

In California and Michigan, juvenile life without parole also is getting another look.

In Connecticut, lawmakers recently raised the age of juveniles to 18 for most cases; the changes will be phased in by 2010. Prosecutors can still transfer felonies to adult court.

In Illinois, a proposal to move 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to juvenile court passed in the state Senate and is pending in the House.

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