Kids on trial: 'justice by geography'

An 11-year-old is charged with stabbing a boy to death in Massachusetts and, if convicted, could serve a total of seven years in a juvenile jail.

A 12-year-old is convicted of beating a girl to death in Florida and faces life without parole in an adult prison.

These recent cases - and the states' high-contrast prosecution of them - illustrate just how splintered America's juvenile-justice system has become in recent years. While state-by-state variations have existed ever since the first court for young offenders was created in 1899, the discrepancies today are so wide that they are raising concerns about fairness.

"One of the concerns we have is justice by geo-graphy - that young people accused of similar offenses are treated quite differently," says Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, a public-interest law firm in Washington. "We expect some differences among the 50 states,... but the concern is that there are very large differences in sentencing, in racial disparity, in arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations."

The two cases in Florida and Massachusetts may represent the extreme outcomes of juvenile-justice law, but other examples proliferate.

In Wisconsin and Vermont, for instance, children as young as 10 can be tried as adults - and serve adult-length sentences - for murder. Rhode Island, meanwhile, sets the age at 17. Some states do not specify a limit, meaning young suspects of any age can be tried as adults.

Laws vary widely, too, when it comes to who makes the decision to send kids to adult court for trial. Increasingly, prosecutors - not just juvenile-court judges - are involved in making that call. In 14 states, it's mandatory to transfer jurisdiction at a certain age or for a certain crime.

"Procedure varies dramatically from state to state, with nuances such as age, prior record, and seriousness of the offense factored in," says Gary Walker, who leads the juvenile-justice advisory committee of the National District Attorneys Assoc- iation. "But the underlying philosophy is pretty much the same - that is, to protect society."

That motive - to toughen laws governing juveniles so that they have less opportunity to harm society - is what's driving the growing disparity in juvenile law. In the past decade, almost every state toughened its juvenile-justice laws as crime rates among the young rose to new highs.

But the changes have also produced a more complex, cumbersome system. Some states are trying to streamline the process, modeling their juvenile systems after their adult systems. Others are simply adding more layers to their already-unwieldy juvenile systems.

A revisionist Massachusetts

The nation's dramatic shift in attitude toward youths who commit crimes is seen even in Massachusetts - a state long known for its emphasis on intervention and rehabilitation.

After several high-profile murders by Massachusetts children in the early 1990s, public sentiment soured toward the state's system of community-based prevention programs and small detention facilities. Laws on prosecuting juveniles became stricter.

The most recent headline comes from Springfield, Mass., where an 11-year-old boy was charged with stabbing to death another 11-year-old boy in a movie theater over the weekend. Because Massachusetts law does not permit murder suspects younger than 14 to be tried in adult court, the boy will be tried as a juvenile.

Massachusetts tries fewer than 100 juveniles as adults each year - compared with 5,000 a year in Florida.

Even so, officials say the Bay State is no pushover. A recent study found that Massachusetts children are locked up longer than those in Florida for crimes such as aggravated assault and armed robbery. That's a result of tougher sentencing practices, says Tony DeMarco, director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

Even as states enacted tougher laws governing young offenders, the juvenile crime rate - like the crime rate nationwide - began to drop. After a steady rise through the 1980s and early 1990s, juvenile crime has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years.

That is not, however, the public's view. Juvenile crime is down 67 percent since 1993, but 62 percent of the public believes it to be on the increase, studies show.

Many blame the news media for creating this impression.

"It's more of a media trend than a trend in the behavior of kids," says Melissa Sickmund of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. "We hear a lot more about these cases now, compared to 20 or 30 years ago, when there were no 24-hour satellite feeds."

Nathaniel's case

As prosecutor in Marquette County, Mich., Mr. Walker was involved in one such high-profile case several years ago. Nathaniel Abraham, an 11-year-old, was shooting a stolen rifle into some trees and hit a man coming out of a convenience store 100 yards away.

Because Michigan law says children under 14 cannot be tried for murder in adult court, the boy was sentenced to incarceration until his 18th birthday. But Walker says his office can review the case at that time - and determine if Nathaniel should remain behind bars.

"Even though the waiver decision has been moved in some states from the court to the prosecutor, we don't make those decisions lightly," he says. "We review the past history of the child, the psychological reports. We weigh all the options."

Jerome Miller, president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, testified as a defense witness in that trial. He says kids who kill do not simply "drop out of the sky. They virtually always have some awful personal history."

In the Springfield stabbing case, the suspect was a frequent witness of domestic abuse at home, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Child advocates say such cases reinforce the importance of preventive work - and insist this is the real key to continuing to reduce juvenile crime. Toughening old laws and adding new ones, they say, is not the answer.

"The juvenile-justice system is the tail that wags the criminal-justice system," says Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in Washington. "All we ever talk about is this, but we never get to the fact that it is very dysfunctional. We spend all our time chasing the two kids who killed another kid, rather than the kid dealing crack on the corner."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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