Has Florida's justice for juveniles gone too far?

A sentencing hearing for a teen convicted of murder puts the policies under scrutiny.

In the eyes of the state of Florida, 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill is too young to drive a car, sign a contract, vote, or even watch an R-rated movie.

And under a new state law that took effect July 1, he is also too young to serve time with adult inmates in a Florida prison.

Yet tomorrow, a circuit judge in West Palm Beach will acknowledge that Nathaniel is old enough to receive an adult-level mandatory sentence.

Nathaniel - who shot and killed his seventh-grade English teacher on the final day of school last year - is facing the prospect of spending at least the next quarter century behind bars.

His case highlights America's worst fears about school violence, while at the same time raising a difficult moral question about how the law should treat a young, first-time offender who nonetheless commits an intolerable act.

Nathaniel isn't the only example. Earlier this year another 14-year-old, Lionel Tate, received a mandatory life sentence in Fort Lauderdale after being convicted of killing a 6-year-old playmate while imitating wrestling moves he'd seen on television. His lawyer said it was a terrible accident. Prosecutors and the jury saw it as murder.

Two other 14-year-olds in Florida are awaiting trial as adults on murder charges. Alexander Bedford of Miami is charged with first-degree murder in the stabbing death of his mother. And Dominic Culpepper is charged with second-degree murder in the baseball bat slaying of a 16-year-old boy near Sarasota.

Such cases have sparked sharp debate over how best to deal with violent youths. And some policy analysts are questioning whether states like Florida have gone too far in enacting tough juvenile-justice provisions that make it easier to put teens on trial as adults and punish them as adults.

Florida, in fact, has become a national leader in trying teens as adults. Analysts say this is in part because Florida authorizes prosecutors rather than judges to decide when to charge a juvenile as an adult.

"Florida in some ways stands for the struggle the rest of the country is going through," says Marc Schindler of the Youth Law Center in Washington. "Turning the discretion over to the prosecutor has resulted in a huge number of kids being swept up into the adult system."

Juvenile-justice experts say that all but two of the 50 states have passed provisions for trying teens as adults.

"We are operating under the fallacy that these policies make communities safer. The reality is that they don't. These kids are going to come out of prison one day, and they are going to come out uneducated and angry and ready for crime," says Rasheed Newson of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice in Washington. "This is where we were 100 years ago when we established the juvenile-justice system."

In setting up a separate system of justice for American children more than a century ago, policymakers agreed that most youths possess a lower level of legal culpability for their crimes because they haven't yet developed the judgment and emotional control expected of adults.

But no political candidate has been elected by campaigning to make life easier for convicted violent felons. The clear policy trend over the past decade has been away from rehabilitation and toward more punishment.

Advocates of the tough-on-crime approach say that the punishment should fit the crime and that teen criminals should be held just as accountable as adult ones, particularly when they take a life.

But some analysts say this approach is shortsighted. "It would be tough on crime if all these kids sent to adult prison were never getting out," says Jason Ziedenberg of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in Washington. "But we have to worry about the 93 percent of these kids who are coming back out."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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