Mentally ill adults weren't the only new group experiencing the country's expansive penal hospitality by the last decade of the twentieth century. Increasingly, as prisons took center stage, teenagers were being removed from the purview of the juvenile courts, tried and sentenced as adults in adult courts, and sent to adult prisons. It was a startling development, a U-turn from over a century of juvenile-justice practice that had looked to create separate institutions for youngsters, based primarily on rehabilitation and education. Like so much else in the emotionally charged arena of crime and punishment, the shift grew out of an increasingly potent national sense of victimhood and public desire for revenge.
In a manner not too dissimilar to that of the notorious “hanging judges” of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England, who were not averse to sentencing children to hang for crimes such as theft, or at least to ordering them deported to ferocious penal colonies in far-off lands,1 so many contemporary American politicians, prosecutors, and judges seemed almost eager to deal with teenagers in as steely a manner as the U.S. Constitution would permit.
In the late winter of 2001, fourteen-year-old Lionel Tate was sentenced to life in prison in Florida for killing a six-year-old girl during a mock wrestling game a couple years earlier. So jarring was the image of a tear-stained, chubbyfaced boy being told he would spend the rest of his life behind bars that it produced an almost instant national and international outcry. Within days, Tate had been moved from an adult prison to a secure unit in a juvenile facility. A clutch of high-powered appellate attorneys, led by the inimitable Johnnie Cochran, of O. J. Simpson notoriety, and Barry Scheck, of the New York-based Innocence Project, had clambered aboard the case. Soon Florida governor Jeb Bush was letting it be known that, while he generally favored a no-nonsense approach to criminals that he called “tough love,” he might eventually be amenable to signing some sort of clemency deal for the boy.