Time gets harder for school shooters

Sentences for today's young offenders are much stiffer than for similar, but earlier, cases.

Michael Carneal's day follows a pattern not unlike that of many other 17-year-olds. He's up at 7, eats breakfast, makes his bed. He washes and goes to school, eats lunch, returns to school, hangs out watching TV, and has dinner.

But there's a big difference between Michael and other kids his age: He will probably never live outside of prison again.

Michael was 14 in 1997, when he shot and killed three students during a prayer meeting at his Paducah, Ky., high school. He pleaded guilty but insane. In June, he'll turn 18 and be moved to an adult prison to serve out his life sentence.

Almost uniformly, the boys who committed the school shootings of recent years - ranging in age from 11 to 17 - are paying mightily for their spasms of violence. All but the youngest are now serving sentences of life in prison. Some have no possibility of parole.

Their cases have stirred hard questions, usually about how to prevent kids from taking such ruinous actions. But they are also leading some to ask whether a decade of harsher sentencing for juveniles - the result of the nation's embrace of the motto, "adult time for adult crime" - is the best approach to justice for troubled young offenders. Rehabilitation is more successful with the young, they say, and should not be abandoned.

Longer sentences are "a matter of real concern, especially when you look at the fact that juvenile crime is decreasing overall," says Mark Soler of the Youth Law Center in Washington. "The political activity is so divorced from actual reality."

Clearly, many Americans expect the justice system to protect them from people - however young - who have killed en masse during a rampage.

"The [sentencing] recommendations I make have little or nothing to do with rehabilitation. Rather they are for the protection of society," says Gary Walker, a Michigan prosecuting attorney and head of the juvenile-justice advisory committee of the National District Attorneys Association. "I have yet to make one prison-sentence recommendation that I thought would be helpful to a juvenile."

Similar sentiments have led prosecutors to throw the book at kids who kill at school. Mr. Walker notes that, while school shootings are still uncommon, they increased in the 1990s, even as juvenile violence overall dropped.

Among the sentences meted out are:

* Life in prison plus 114 years for Nicholas Elliott. In December 1988, when he was 16, he fired on a classroom at his high school in Virginia Beach, Va., killing a teacher and wounding another. He pleaded guilty to murder and 13 other charges.

* 210 years in prison, eligible for parole in 52-1/2 years, for Evan Brand. He was convicted of murder in the February 1997 shooting of a teacher and a student at a high school in Bethel, Alaska. Two others were wounded. He was 16.

* Life in prison for Luke Woodham. In October 1997, when he was 16, he killed his mother, then went to his high school in Pearl, Miss., and killed two students.

* 111-1/2 years for Kip Kinkel, who pleaded guilty to murder. In May 1998, he killed his parents at his Springfield, Ore., home, and killed two students and wounded 25 others in his high school cafeteria.

Sentences for juveniles - even those who opened fire at school - have not always been this stiff.

Back in 1978, Roger Needham, then 15, killed one boy and shot another at a Lansing, Mich., high school. The town devoted itself to getting him treatment, and he was released after four years at a juvenile facility. An investigation by the St. Petersburg Times found that Mr. Needham went on to get his PhD in mathematics, taught at the City College of New York, and currently works in the computer industry. He has never been arrested for another crime.

And in 1985, a Kansas teenager who killed the principal and shot three others at a junior high was held until his 21st birthday, a total of seven years.

"Everywhere you look today, the tendency is to punish kids as adults. But calling a child an adult doesn't make that child an adult," says Mike Frost, a Seattle lawyer who represented a 14-year-old school shooter in 1996. His client, who killed a teacher and two students in algebra class in Moses Lake, Wash., got life with no possibility of parole.

But Mr. Frost wonders what makes his client, now housed in an adult prison in Washington State for the rest of his life, more dangerous to society than James Alan Kearbey, the teen who served seven years in a state youth center in Kansas in the late 1980s.

Several studies done in Florida and New York have shown that teens convicted and sentenced in adult courts reoffend at rates 30 percent higher than those who remain in the juvenile system.

"Any teen that does this type of one-time crime, the potential for rehabilitation is much higher," says Tony DeMarco, director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. "The question is, are we going to be kid-based or offense-based? Our society has become more offense-based, where retribution is the goal and the needs of kids become secondary."

Inside the Northern Kentucky Youth Development Center, Michael Carneal has been growing up. A 102-pounder at the time of his crime, he's now over 6 feet tall and weighs more than 250 pounds.

Prisons can handle the physical growth. It's the emotional growth that is harder to manage - especially in a time of budget cuts at juvenile facilities across the United States.

"It is not easy to handle normal children during their teenage years. Handling children who usually have severe emotional problems is even more difficult," says Walker, the Michigan prosecutor, of the kids growing up in prison. "Our juvenile programs are certainly not at the level they once were."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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