Rethinking Juvenile Justice: After Years of Moving in the Opposite Direction, Many States Are Now Making It Harder to Try Teen Offenders in the Adult Justice System

By Schwartz, John | New York Times Upfront, December 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Juvenile Justice: After Years of Moving in the Opposite Direction, Many States Are Now Making It Harder to Try Teen Offenders in the Adult Justice System


Schwartz, John, New York Times Upfront


James Stewart, a 17-year-old from Denver, had committed a terrible act: While driving drunk in 2008, he slammed into another vehicle head-on and killed its driver.

After his arrest, he was initially placed with other juvenile offenders. But when the district attorney charged him as an adult, he was moved to the county jail. Left alone in his cell despite his frantic pleas not to be isolated, he tightened his bedsheets around his neck and took his own life.

His death was one of two suicides by young people in Colorado jails that helped spur a significant change in the state's laws last year: Colorado narrowed the authority of prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults and to place them in adult jails.

The change is part of a nationwide trend. In a reversal of the tough-on-crime legislation that swept the nation in the late 1980s and '90s, nearly half the states have enacted laws that keep more young offenders in the juvenile justice system, divert them from being automatically tried as adults, or prevent them from being placed in adult jails and prisons (see map, p. 11).

Several factors are behind the shift, experts say: a decline in juvenile crime, concerns about the costs of adult prisons, and a growing understanding that adolescents have a greater potential for rehabilitation than adults do.

"What we are seeing is a very stark and important rethinking of how we treat juvenile criminal offenders," says Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. "Now we realize that to ensure that kids are protected, we have to recognize that they are actually different from adults."

More Good Than Bad?

Two decades ago, police departments and the court system were headed in the opposite direction. From 1985 to 1993, as the crack-cocaine epidemic spread, juvenile homicide rates tripled and nearly every state changed its laws to make it possible to charge and sentence the most violent juveniles as adults. The idea was to get violent offenders--no matter how young--off the streets and to send a message that serious crimes would have serious consequences.

But juvenile justice experts say that locking up young people with hardened adult criminals did more harm than good. That realization, along with a sharp drop in violent crime and new scientific research showing that teenagers' brains are not fully developed, began turning the tide away from this get-tough approach.

Scientists have found that the part of the brain that guides impulse control and weighs risks versus rewards is not fully mature in teenagers. Research has also shown that a person's actions at age 13 or 14 are a poor indication of the kind of adult he or she will become.

"Ninety percent of teen offenders do not become adult criminals," says Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. The Supreme Court has increasingly taken neurological research into account on juvenile justice issues, whittling away at the two harshest punishments in the juvenile justice system: the death penalty and life without parole (see Key Dates, p. 10). In 2005, the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional for juvenile offenders. In the 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, the Court barred mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for anyone who committed a crime before turning 18. Justice Elena Kagan's majority opinion in the case cited adolescents' "diminished culpability and heightened

capacity for change."

Change is also happening on the local level. Cities like Washington, Chicago, and New York, as well as counties across the nation, have launched efforts to keep nonviolent, low-level juvenile offenders--kids arrested for things like theft or getting into a fight--out of the criminal justice system altogether, hoping to send more of them to community rehabilitation programs. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy group, has been working with 184 counties nationwide to develop alternatives to incarceration for teenagers. …

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