Prosecutorial zeal vs. America's kids

Anthony Laster is the kind of kid who has never been a danger to anyone. A 15-year-old, eighth-grader with an IQ of 58, Anthony is described by relatives as having the mind of a five-year-old.

Late last year, a few days after his mother died, Anthony asked another boy in his class at a Florida middle school to give him his lunch money, claiming he was hungry. When the boy refused, Anthony reached into the boy's pocket and stole $2.

That's when Anthony ran smack into Palm Beach County prosecutor Barry Krischer's brand of compassionless conservatism. Rather than handling the case in the principal's office, where it belonged, Mr. Krischer decided to prosecute Anthony as an adult for this, his first arrest. Anthony spent the next seven weeks - including his first Christmas since his mother died - in custody, much of it in an adult jail. If convicted as an adult on the contemplated charges of strong-arm robbery, battery, and extortion, Anthony could have faced decades in Florida's prison system, where 596 kids under 18, including a handful of 13-year-olds, are now imprisoned alongside adults.

It was only after the glare of national media attention - including a visit by 60 Minutes II - focused a spotlight on Krischer that he backed down and dropped the charges. But 60 Minutes can't be everywhere, and Krischer's reconsideration under pressure only strengthens the point about the capricious wielding of unchecked power.

To make matters worse, if some in Congress have their way, prosecutors across the country will have exclusive control over whether or not a kid will be tried in adult court.

For the past two years, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, and Congressman Bill McCollum (R) of Florida have repeatedly tried to pass legislation to allow 13-year-olds to be jailed with adults, prior to any conviction, while they are awaiting trial. Now, despite a year full of unprecedented prosecutorial abuses, the senators are drafting legislation that would give federal prosecutors nonreviewable discretion to decide whether a child should be tried as an adult, bypassing any tempering judicial oversight.

This is the misguided practice that Mr. McCollum's home state of Florida pioneered in 1981 with disastrous results.

Research by the University of Florida has shown that juveniles tried as adults in Florida get rearrested at significantly higher rates than similar youths retained in the juvenile courts.

Perhaps this explains why Florida has the nation's second-highest rate of violent juvenile crime, despite its draconian approach. Hardly a model worth exporting to the rest of the country.

Of all people, one would have thought that House prosecutor McCollum would have learned a lesson this year about unrestrained prosecutorial zeal.

Unfortunately, it seems as though after he was unable to remove the president from office, he has turned his ire to America's kids. Let's hope that, once again, his more sober colleagues don't let him get away with it.

*Vincent Schiraldi is director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

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