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Opinion

Trying youths as adults hurts families and taxpayers, but not crime

If a juvenile court decides today that accused Chardon High School shooter T.J. Lane is competent to stand trial, he could become one of 250,000 youths prosecuted in adult criminal court every year. This practice harms young people, doesn't save taxpayers money, and doesn't reduce crime.

By Liz Ryan / May 2, 2012

T.J. Lane speaks to his lawyer Robert Farinacci at his initial hearing March 6 in Geauga County Juvenile Court in Chardon, Ohio. Lane has been charged with three counts of aggravated murder for killing three students at Chardon High School in February. Op-ed contributor Liz Ryan says youths that end up in adult prisons are 'the population most at risk for sexual assault, physical abuse, and suicide.'

Duncan Scott/News-Herald/AP

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If an Ohio juvenile court decides at a hearing today that he is competent to stand trial, 17-year-old T.J. Lane may become one of 250,000 youths prosecuted in adult criminal court every year.

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Mr. Lane is accused of killing three students at Chardon High School and wounding several others in February. This is a tragedy for everyone involved. My deepest sympathies go out to the victims and their families.

The vast majority of youths in adult criminal court, however, are not charged with serious crimes, such as murder or rape. Less than 1 percent of the 2.2 million arrests of youths under 18 every year are for murder charges, and less than 5 percent of cases are for serious, violent crimes, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime report.

Most youth cases that end up in adult court, get there automatically – a result of laws, for instance, that set the age for adult trial at 16 or 17. These youths are not afforded the benefit of any kind of judicial hearing or case review by a juvenile court judge.

This nationwide practice is harmful to young people and can lead to serious, negative, and life-long consequences.

For example, most of these youths live in states where they can be placed in adult jails during pre-trial or in adult prisons if convicted. Inside these facilities, they are the population most at risk for sexual assault, physical abuse, and suicide.

Youths tried in adult criminal courts can also lose access to student financial aid and their right to vote. This makes it more difficult for them to obtain an education, find and hold a job, and participate in the democratic process.

Many public housing authorities deny eligibility for federal housing assistance based on an arrest, regardless of whether it led to a conviction. And most states allow employers to deny jobs to people with adult criminal records, regardless of the age at conviction or how minor the offense.

Prosecuting youths in adult courts does not reduce crime. The inverse is true. Study after study comes to the same conclusion: Trying youth in adult court substantially increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood that a youth will reoffend. These studies have been produced by a diverse group of experts: criminologists, attorneys, and medical professionals. 

Handling youths in the juvenile justice system saves taxpayers money in the long run. True, the juvenile justice system, by providing rehabilitative services and other programs, requires higher front-end costs than confining young people in adult institutions. But in the long term, the consequences are far greater, including more crimes and expenses from repeatedly cycling young offenders through the adult criminal justice system.

For example, John Roman, of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, found that moving 16- and 17-year-old youths out of the adult criminal justice system into the juvenile one in Connecticut would return about $3 in benefit for every $1 in cost.

Such findings are slowly starting to have an impact. Nearly half the states have begun to re-examine their policies in light of such research, especially about youths who reoffend after going through the adult system.

Over the past five years, nearly 20 states have instituted reforms, mostly reducing the number of kids who are prosecuted in adult court. These reforms have been championed by Republican and Democratic officials alike, and are strongly supported by the public.

The public strongly favors rehabilitation and treatment of youths rather than incarceration, according to the most recent poll by GBA Strategies. And people strongly favor individualized determinations on a case-by-case basis by juvenile court judges rather than automatic prosecution in adult criminal court. Americans also reject the placement of youth in adult jails and prisons.

The US Supreme Court has issued several opinions in recent years that underscore that kids are different than adults, and so should not be treated as adults. States as politically diverse as Illinois, Connecticut, Mississippi, Arizona, and Virginia have initiated reforms. More states must follow.

Liz Ryan is president and CEO of Campaign for Youth Justice.

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