Adult Time for Adult Crime: Have We Lost Faith in Rehabilitating Juvenile Offenders?

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Adult Time for Adult Crime

Have we lost faith in rehabilitating juvenile offenders?

They're the faces of children: The 17-year-old sniper with the delicate features and sad, boyish look who took part in a deadly shooting spree that terrorized the nation's capital. The chubby-faced 14-year-old with tears streaming down his cheeks after he was sentenced to life in prison for stomping to death a 6-year-old girl when he was only 12.

As their crimes and their youth shocked the country, the cases of Lee Malvo and Lionel Tate also renewed a debate that for many years has been largely one-sided: how to understand and address the crimes of children. For the past 20 years, the American criminal justice system has dealt with juvenile offenders in a way it never did before: by treating them like adults who are responsible for their actions and must be isolated and punished for their crimes.

The result of that policy, says a growing chorus of psychologists, lawyers, and researchers, is record numbers of young people who are sentenced to juvenile detention facilities that have become warehouses for mentally disturbed youth. "Put bluntly, the juvenile-justice system has become the dumping ground for poor, minority youth with mental disorders and learning disabilities," said Laurence Steinberg, a juvenile-justice researcher and professor of psychology at Temple University, in a recent lecture.

The punitive trend began in the 1980s, in response to a sharp rise in the number of murders committed by juveniles, sensational TV coverage, and inflammatory pronouncements by conservative sociologists about a new breed of "radically impulsive, brutally remorseless . . . superpredators." Tough-on-crime legislators responded by getting especially tough on teenagers. "Adult time for adult crimes" became their mantra.

"Everybody was going crazy," says Thomas Grisso, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. "Virtually every state changed its [juvenile] laws and made them tougher and more punitive." 

Florida, where Lionel Tate received a life sentence in 2001, was particularly zealous; by 1995, prosecutors there were sending 7,000 children a year into criminal court to be tried as adults. In 2000, the St. Petersburg Times reported, children as young as 6 and 7 years old were being held overnight in detention centers for such offenses as scratching a teacher's aide or kicking a police officer.

Then, in the mid-1990s, the juvenile crime rate, like the crime rate among adults, began a steady decline, and by 2000, the arrest rate for violent offenses was back to the levels of the early '80s. The percentage of violent crimes that victims attributed to kids under 18 dropped from 40 percent in 1993 to 24 percent in 2002. Yet in 2000, the juvenile court caseload nationally was 50 percent greater than it was in 1980. "More and more juveniles are being referred to court today for less and less serious crimes," says Steinberg. And many of these kids are mentally or emotionally disturbed.

In a 2002 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, Linda Teplin, director of the psycho-legal studies program at Northwestern University, found that 60 percent of teenage males and 70 percent of teenage females held in Chicago-area detention facilities suffered from a mental disorder (not including conduct disorder). Fully19 percent of the males and 27 percent of the females suffered from an affective disorder, such as depression or dysthymia, while 20 percent of males and 30 percent of females had anxiety disorders.

The large number of mentally disturbed children in custody "is one of our society's dirty little secrets," says Steinberg, who pegs the rate of mental disorders among incarcerated teenagers at roughly three times that of kids in the community. Yet few mental health services are available to disturbed children behind bars. "Some juvenile facilities are better than others," says Grisso. …