Trying Teens as Adults: Not Always Hard Time Studies Show Criminal Courts Often Give Lighter Sentences

Article excerpt

A GROWING number of states, eager to curb juvenile crime, are trying young offenders as adults. One reason: to ensure they receive harsh enough punishment.

But do teens tried in the adult system actually serve more time?

Not in many cases, statistics show, which is triggering a new debate over how society should deal with its violent young offenders.

"If the rationale for trying kids as adults is to be tough on them, I'm not sure that that happens," says Melissa Sickmund, a researcher at the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. Often studies have inconclusive results, she says.

Typical is one recent study here by a University of Washington student researcher, Scott March. In a survey of 48 juvenile cases in Seattle, he found that 40 percent of the youths tried in adult courts were sentenced to 12 months or more beyond the maximum possible in juveinile courts. But in the majority of the cases, the punishment was weaker.

"In the main you do more time in the juvenile system than in the adult system," says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, based in San Francisco. Youths also are poorly served by adult courts, he adds, because they lose the benefits of the juvenile system's far greater emphasis on rehabilitation.

More research is needed nationwide, Ms. Sickmund says, since most studies were done based on data gathered before a wave of legislation cracking down on youth violence. Arrests for juvenile violent crime jump 47 percent between 1988 and 1992, and youth crime now accounts for about 13 percent of all violent crimes reported.

With political pressure mounting on adult-court judges to deal with such cases firmly, "it is entirely possible that the climate has changed," Sickmund says. But she says she has not seen hard evidence that this is occurring.

The exception

High-profile murder trials, such as a recent Seattle case involving two 15-year-olds and one 14-year-old, tend to leave a public impression of tougher sentences for violent teens, but they may be the exception to the rule.

The teen murderers, convicted in the death of seven-year-old Angelica Robinson by stray gunfire, have been sentenced to six-, 18-, and 20-year prison terms. Two of the prison terms are significantly longer than what the teens could have gotten in juvenile court.

Traditionally, juvenile court judges have given tougher sentences than their peers on adult-court benches, analysts say. …