WASHINGTON — When he was 17 years old, Alonzo McCullough broke into his neighbors' house in Clearwater, Fla., and sexually assaulted their daughter. He was tried and convicted as an adult, facing 17 years in prison.
But prosecutors wanted more. They applied a provision of Florida's sentencing law that required the judge to consider McCullough's juvenile-court record.
Those crimes were (1) stealing $3.91 from a teacher's pocketbook, (2) taking a cup of laundry soap from a garage, (3) stealing matches and a comb from a car, (4) failing to give his true name to a police officer, and (5) an apparent attempt at sexual assault in which he was chased away.
Instead of 17 years in prison, McCullough was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
While the teen's sentence is unusual, using juvenile records to boost criminal sentences in adult courts is becoming an increasingly common - and controversial - practice throughout the US.
It is also raising civil-liberties concerns about whether young teens who are typically urged to plead guilty in juvenile court are being afforded constitutional safeguards in line with the long prison terms they may ultimately face.
"If we are going to treat juvenile convictions the same way we do adult convictions for purposes of criminal histories [for sentencing], then we need to make sure that all constitutional protections that are required when adults are charged also apply when children are charged with crimes," says Helen Leiner, an attorney in Fairfax, Va., who is co-chair of the Juvenile Justice Committee of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The issue arises at a time when legislators at the state and national levels are passing laws that attempt to hold ever-younger criminals accountable for a wider variety of crimes. A crime bill pending in Congress seeks to reduce the age at which children may be tried as adults to 13 in federal courts and 15 in state courts. It would also eliminate the practice in some states of expunging juvenile records, a development that would ensure that a teen's juvenile offenses follow him or her throughout life.
Joseph Sanborn, a juvenile-justice expert at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, has studied the issue. He says that in addition to the federal government, there are 10 states in which a juvenile record could mandate an increased prison sentence of 40 years to life in prison.
The states are California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia.
In 13 other states, juvenile records may be used to determine whether a convicted felon should be considered a career criminal and thus receive a significantly longer sentence.
How juvenile court is different
The problem, Mr. Sanborn and other experts say, is that most juvenile courts weren't set up to afford the same level of attention to civil liberties as adult criminal courts.
The US Supreme Court, for example, has held that there's no right to a jury trial in juvenile court.
In part, the justices based their decision on the assumption that juveniles do not face substantial periods of incarceration. A maximum sentence in juvenile court could entail being held in state custody only until age 18, 21, or 25, depending on the state.
But new sentencing laws, combined in some states with three-strikes-and-you're-out provisions, mean that adults who have juvenile records can, in effect, be punished anew for juvenile crimes for which they have already served juvenile sentences.
Traditionally, juvenile-court judges were intended to act as advisers and counselors to troubled youths, seeking to guide them back from their past mistakes. But with the explosion in violent juvenile crime during the past decade, lawmakers have generally emphasized punishment over rehabilitation.
What does a guilty plea really mean?
Analysts say unwary teens are getting caught in the middle.
Despite the Supreme Court's stand on jury trials, some states permit jury trials in their juvenile courts. But most states mandate that juvenile judges - rather than juries - will determine questions of guilt and innocence in their courtrooms.
The vast majority of juvenile cases, however, never go to trial. That's because accused teens are generally urged by officials and parents to admit their mistake and plead guilty.
"Kids don't usually have a long-term horizon," says Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project in Washington. "A 15-year-old kid pleading guilty to an offense has a hard time imagining that the same offense may send him off to prison for the rest of his life."
As more states adopt laws to retain and use juvenile records in future sentencings, experts say defense attorneys will be forced to fight harder in pretrial motions and will counsel their clients against plea bargaining. The flood of hard-fought litigation could stall the juvenile-justice system in a massive logjam.
"As the stakes go up, people fight it harder, cases take longer, and things start to bog down," says Bob Cushman, a criminal-justice planner in San Jose, Calif. "It is happening in California, you can see signs of it."
If the trend continues, some analysts say, the Supreme Court must act to expand safeguards to juvenile courts.
"If it is an adult sentence in an adult prison that is at stake, even if the case is still tried in front of a juvenile court there is no doubt that the Supreme Court is going to have to create a higher level of rights," says Scott Wallace of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in Washington.
As for McCullough, he appealed his life sentence to a federal appeals court in Atlanta and lost in August 1992. The Supreme Court declined to hear his case.