Bay State Debates Youth Trial Policy

MASSACHUSETTS Gov. William Weld wants juveniles who are accused of violent crimes in his state to be tried as adults. The Republican governor's proposal, being considered by the state House of Representatives, is creating heated debate.Proponents say the measure would reduce crime by targeting a small group of young, violent offenders. Opponents call the legislation disturbing - and ironic. They point to the Bay State's nationally acclaimed juvenile corrections system, which some states are seeking to emulate. Moreover, they say, while Massachusetts considers trying juveniles as adults, a number of states are questioning the effectiveness of their own laws. "Basically, Weld is asking Massachusetts citizens to buy a lemon that has been rejected by the Legislature in Florida, that is under serious scrutiny in New York, that's being questioned seriously in Illinois," says Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco. "This is a lemon that has not worked." Governor Weld's bill would mandate that 14- to 17-year-olds be tried in adult court for first- and second-degree murder, and aggravated rape. It is one of several proposals Weld introduced in October that are designed to toughen the Massachusetts criminal justice system. A similar, Senate-passed bill sponsored by Sen. William Keating (D) of Sharon, is also pending before the House. Weld has also filed a bill to reinstate the death penalty. Twenty-four states either exclude some offenses from juvenile court or allow a case to be tried in either the adult or juvenile court based on the prosecutor's charge. Supporters of the bill say they want to target a small number - 100 to 150 of the 19,000 or so juvenile offenders a year - who commit murder and other violent crimes. Robert Cordy, chief legal counsel to Weld, says: "Police will tell you kids at a younger age are carrying guns - particularly 15- and 16-year-olds who know nothing will happen to them. So there is no fear. If we could take those kids and treat them the same way we can treat the 17-, 18-, 19-year-old violent youth and get them off the streets we're going to have safer streets." Massachusetts is one of 49 states that has a transfer system - allowing juvenile cases to be transferred to adult court. The Massachusetts statute, amended last year, makes it easier for kids accused of first-degree murder to be transferred. But Mr. Cordy says it is still difficult for a juvenile to obtain an adult sentence once a juvenile is transferred because the juvenile is allowed to prove he can be rehabilitated. Opponents argue that most kids who are tried as adults receive the same sentences as they do in juvenile court because juries usually decide to give them less-severe sentences. Instead of being rehabilitated, these kids will "be put in the chaotic prison system and probably be released early with minimal supervision," Mr. Krisberg says. Massachusetts should concentrate on improving what is already a model juvenile corrections system, he says, because it is working well and has low recidivism rates. Krisberg says a number of states that have direct filing systems have not reduced violent juvenile crime. He cites New York, Florida, and Illinois as examples. But Elizabeth Lederer, the Manhattan assistant district attorney who tried the Central Park jogger case, says New York's system does work. The one criticism she has is that although kids who commit violent crimes are tried in adult court, they are sentenced as juveniles and receive a maximum of 5 to 10 years in prison. "That is insufficient for the types of crimes these people are committing," Ms. Lederer says. "We are seeing increasingly savage and vicious crimes being committed by young people, and I t hink that's the time when you don't treat them as children anymore and you treat them as adults." Jay Blitzman, director of the juvenile law and advocacy program in the Massachusetts public defender's office voices another concern about the Massachusetts bill: "Experience has shown us that in almost every state that has gone to a direct filing system, once you open up the door that door is a one-way door, and what happens is further offenses get included."

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