Overview of the New Report on Juvenile Justice

Washington, D.C., lawyer Matthew Caspari has developed some strong feelings about punishing teenage criminals since last August. That’s when he wrestled with a knife-wielding 17-year-old who’d been harassing one of his neighbors on Capitol Hill.

Caspari had been taking a walk with his wife and their 6-month-old daughter when he saw a neighbor in trouble. As he was calling 911, the young man threatened him, and they began to fight. When Caspari’s dropped cell phone picked up his wife’s screams, police raced to the scene and arrested the man.

But what happened afterwards was equally disturbing, Caspari told a City Council hearing in October. After a Family Court judge released the youth while he awaited sentencing, he was back on the street hanging out with a tough crowd, Caspari said. That’s why he said he opposed legislation to rescind the U.S. attorney’s sole power to try teenagers 15 and older in adult court for violent crimes.

“Family Court is no deterrent,” said Caspari. “Punishment and consequences are simply not taken seriously by the offenders. If you want to instill a sense of accountability in these teens and provide therapy and services -- there’s no reason why you can’t provide that in the adult system -- while protecting the community.”

Democratic Councilman Phil Mendelson, who is co-sponsoring the proposal to reign in the U.S. attorney, says statistical evidence shows adult-court prosecution tends to reinforce -- rather than diminish -- young offenders’ criminal tendencies.

“The inclination is, if somebody commits a crime, particularly a violent crime, then lock ‘em up,” Mendelson told the hearing. “And the research shows that is statistically counterproductive.”

Mendelson’s comment echoed the views of a growing number of juvenile justice experts and activists. With violent juvenile crime trending downward for the past 13 years, they say it’s time to replace the tough sentences that state lawmakers enacted in the 1980s and ‘90s and handle more youth cases in juvenile court. The hard-line policies reflected skyrocketing juvenile crime and the prediction -- later proved baseless -- that violent, young “superpredators” would take over the nation’s inner cities.

The get-tough measures eased the transferring of juveniles to adult courts where they faced tougher sentences. Some states allowed prosecutors to “direct file” juvenile cases in adult court; others left the decision to a judge, or made transfers automatic for certain charges.

But standards differ on when courts legally recognize that adulthood begins. In most states -- especially those striving for more rehabilitation -- 18 is the threshold age. In 10 states -- Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin -- teens become adults at 17; in New York and North Carolina, it’s 16.

Experts say they haven’t determined how many convicts are serving time for crimes committed before they were 18. But the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimates that on any given day 7,500 youths under 18 are in jail or awaiting trial or transport to prison or juvenile detention.

Adult court sentences often are tougher than those in juvenile courts. Until 2005, they could include the death penalty, which the U.S. Supreme Court then banned for anyone who committed a capital crime before turning 18.

The backdrop to that decision was a decline in youth crime, and the drop continues. According to the most recent statistics, the 2007 arrest rate for youths ages 10-18 was down to fewer than 300 per 100,000 -- the same level as in 1982.

To counter assertions by prosecutors that tougher laws brought crime rates down, opponents of harsh penalties point to studies showing that juveniles tried as adults come out of prison more dangerous than when they went in, and hence more prone to become adult criminals. A nationwide Task Force on Community Preventive Services, appointed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concluded in late 2006: “Overall, available evidence indicates that use of transfer laws and strengthened transfer policies is counterproductive for the purpose of reducing juvenile violence and enhancing public safety.”

Indeed, at a recent conference on juvenile rehabilitation at the Brookings Institution, Bart Lubow, director of programs for high-risk youth at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said the punitive laws of the 1980s and ‘90s had “resulted in the criminalization of delinquency.” The Baltimore-based nonprofit is advising 100 cities and counties on how to reorganize their juvenile systems so that they rely less on incarceration.

Many prosecutors say they also want to channel more juveniles into detention alternatives -- but not all of them.

In Oregon, says Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis, “We went from an extreme -- ‘everyone needs a hug and cup of Ovaltine’ -- to a more nuanced system. Delinquents who need a minimum of incarceration and a maximum amount of structure get treated one way. And then there are the young criminals who for all intents and purposes are young adults -- they don’t act like children, don’t respond like children and you can’t treat them like children.”

Oregon voters approved the present system in 1994, when the tough-on-crime approach was sweeping the nation. Measure 11 stiffened sentences for certain violent offenses and applied them to defendants as young as 15.

By 2003, 31 states had passed laws requiring juveniles charged with certain crimes to be tried as adults. Also during the ‘90s, 13 states lowered the top age for juvenile court jurisdiction to 15 or 16. As a result, the number of inmates serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were under 18 began climbing; today 2,484 youthful offenders are serving such sentences.

But rollback advocates have scored a few successes. Connecticut last year raised its age threshold for adult court from 16 to 18. In 2006, Colorado abolished juvenile life without parole. In addition, several states have restricted adult-court transfers, and advocates are readying legislation for introduction in other states next year.

Hard-liners can claim some victories as well. This year, a California proposal to abolish life without parole for juveniles failed to get the required two-thirds majority needed for passage. And in Colorado, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., a former district attorney, vetoed a bill that would have stripped prosecutors of their sole authority to charge juveniles in adult court.

“They wanted to take away our discretion -- there’s still a movement in our state to do that,” says Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey. “They wanted to have more hearings and more experts and cost a lot more money.”

Morrissey and other supporters of tough laws argue that prosecutors use them sparingly. In the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dakota County Prosecutor James C. Backstrom tells of resisting heavy pressure in 2006 to press for life without parole for two 17-year-olds who gunned down one of the boys’ parents in cold blood. Instead, the prosecutor accepted pleas to a charge that didn’t carry the no-parole proviso, giving them a chance to apply for release after 30 years.

“They knew right from wrong; there was no question they should be convicted of first-degree murder,” Backstrom says, “but they had no criminal history whatsoever. I just did not feel that locking them up for the rest of their natural lives was the right thing to do. They’ll have a chance to salvage some part of their lives. There were some strong disagreements, even from the victims’ family.”

Prosecutors everywhere can recall horrendous cases that warranted tough sentences. But rollback advocates argue such cases tend to obscure the fact that more than half of juvenile cases that end up in adult court don’t involve crimes against people.

“You could certainly say that when you expand the use of adult court transfer you are likely to capture more serious offenders,” says Jeffrey A. Butts, a research fellow at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children. “But it’s a blunt instrument, so you pull a lot of youth into that pathway in the attempt to grab all serious offenders.”

According to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), about 51 percent of all 6,885 juvenile cases transferred (“waived”) to adult court in 2005 (the most recent figures available) involved “person” offenses -- that is, crimes against individuals. The rest were property crimes (27 percent), drug offenses (12 percent) and public order violations (10 percent), such as weapons, sex or liquor violations.

No national statistics exist on the total number of juveniles tried in adult court. The closest estimate, based on calculations by Butts, is 200,000 a year.

To be sure, statistics don’t capture the nitty-gritty of crime in the streets. Lawyer Caspari says the teen who pulled a knife on him wasn’t eligible for transfer to adult court because Caspari was never cut or stabbed. But he could have been.

That’s why Caspari opposes allowing judges -- instead of prosecutors -- to send cases to adult court. The relative speed of the present system, he says, tells young offenders that they’ll be held accountable quickly. “The practical reality is the defendant’s lawyer can gum up the system by requesting it go back down to juvenile court, and that’s another nine months,” he says. “Is that the message you want to send to these kids?”

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