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