If a child commits a crime worthy of an adult - a murder, rape, or other violent act should he or she be put in an adult prison?
It's a question that rankles the justice system and has received fresh urgency with the arrest of two 15-year-olds charged with the murder of a businessman in New York City's Central Park.
In recent years, the prevailing law-and-order attitude has encouraged putting the most violent teens in adult lock-ups to protect society and deter other young people from committing crimes. Bills under consideration in the House and Senate will help states to continue or expand the practice. But child advocates decry the idea, arguing that it creates career criminals and is unnecessarily cruel.
"There are two schools of thought about these juveniles coming into the system," says Jim Turpin of the American Correctional Association. "One is that they are excessively vulnerable. The other school of thought is that they are actually more dangerous and harder to control than the people ... already [in adult prison]."
The Indiana standard
Child advocates hope the experience of an Indiana teen will persuade some lawmakers to rethink their positions.
Donna Ratliff was 14 years old when she was sent to the maximum security Indiana Women's Prison after pleading guilty in 1995 to starting a fire that killed her mother and 16-year-old sister.
To protect her from the general prison population, the teen was sent to a psychiatric wing. But she has been physically threatened and sexually harassed by other prisoners there, according to her lawyer, JauNae Hanger.
Two weeks ago, the Indiana Court of Appeals ordered officials to move her to a juvenile facility, saying Indiana's constitution forbids housing a 14-year-old in an adult prison. The ruling was hailed by children's rights advocates, who said it might force the state to move 85 other teens out of prison to juvenile facilities.
But within a day, the same Indiana court ruled that a 16-year-old boy convicted of a serious violent crime was not entitled to enter a juvenile facility, but instead must go to an adult prison. The only difference between Donna Ratliffe and the boy was their ages when their crimes were committed.
Lawyers say the rulings suggest those 16 or older convicted of a serious violent crime in Indiana must go to adult prison.
As the age of "adulthood" in the criminal justice system is lowered, children's rights advocates worry that teenagers in prison are more vulnerable than other inmates to sexual or physical abuse, and are more likely than adult inmates to commit suicide.
They cite studies that show teens in adult prisons are more prone to become career criminals than those sent to juvenile facilities. And some say it's cruel to place a person so young in such a bleak and terrifying environment.
"Prison is a hard place for adults, but it is even harder for children," says Ms. Hanger. "There are no positive role models there."
But others counter that teens would be deterred from committing crimes if they knew they faced serious consequences. And some crimes are so offensive that they mandate a teen offender be locked up to protect society.
New York's Central Park killing and others like it have led some observers to suggest America is being threatened by a growing cadre of cold-blooded teens called "super-predators."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, a former prosecutor, says the juvenile justice system is out of date. "We do not effectively deal with juvenile violence and serious juvenile crime,'' he says. "We act as if it is the same kind of crime that existed 30 or 40 years ago when juvenile crime primarily involved vandalism or petty theft."
Teen cell blocks
Senator Sessions is proposing legislation that would make it easier to house young offenders in adult prisons and jails, provided they are not kept in the same cells as adults. A similar bill passed the House in early May.
Mr. Turpin says prisons are going to have to accommodate an influx of ever-younger offenders. Adult institutions must now consider how to handle teen inmates.
A 1994 survey found that there were more than 4,000 teens ages 13 to 17 in adult prisons. When the nation's adult jails are added, the number increases to 65,000 teens held in adult facilities.
Mark Soler, director of the Youth Law Center in Washington, says the push to house teens in adult facilities is misguided. He says placing an offender in a juvenile rather than an adult facility can make a huge difference.
"Juvenile detention facilities have the space to classify children who are admitted, and therefore separate potentially predatory youth from children who are particularly vulnerable," he says. "Jails can't do that ... so dangerous youth and vulnerable children are thrown in together, often with disastrous consequences."
Herb Hoelter, director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, says locking teens in any facility is not the answer.
"When a 15-year-old shoots and kills someone, that child is no surprise to child welfare workers," he says. "We know the kids who are coming up. The issue is that they get little or no resources until they have committed a violent crime. Then we give them a 10-year sentence and we spent $250,000 each to warehouse them in a prison. That is the first real expenditure for that child in their lives."
Mr. Soler says lawmakers should have the same compassion for the nation's troubled youth as they do for their own children. "After almost 20 years in this field," he says, "the most useful and appropriate standard ... is that we should only allow for other children what we would allow for our own."