Sentencing Children

Terrible crimes deserve tough punishment. But should such punishment be meted out regardless of the age of the offender?

That question has renewed currency in the wake of a life sentence without parole given a 14-year-old boy in Florida. Lionel Tate was 12 when he killed a 6-year-old playmate, imitating pro wrestling moves he'd seen on TV.

The judge in the case, emphasizing the brutality of the crime, saw no reason to reduce the sentence. The sentence is likely, however, to be lessened through a clemency process now under way.

Even in Florida, a state particularly known for trying juveniles as adults, state officials are having trouble swallowing the idea of locking away a young, immature teenager for the rest of his life.

Behind this note of mercy lies the recognition that kids like this can be turned around. Indeed, a recent Monitor story on the sentences being given young school shooters included the remarkable case of an individual who at age 15 killed one classmate and wounded another at his Michigan high school in 1978, served four years in a juvenile prison, then went on to a productive, crime-free life as a mathematician and computer expert.

That, of course, was before the greatly toughened sentencing laws of the 1990s. Probably none of the school shooters of recent years will have a similar experience. Given the horrendous nature of their crimes - the costs to victims' families and to communities - that's understandable.

But the startling youth crimes of today - from the most recent assaults at schools to the child murderer in Florida - are occurring even as the country records a steady drop in youth crime. Also, researchers are finding that youngsters tried and sentenced as adults are more likely to go on to a life of repeat crimes.

Rehabilitation should be revived, especially with regard to young offenders. Yes, there may be cases where tough, adult penalties seem justifiable. But society will be better served by allowing as many young offenders as possible the opportunity to mature into responsible citizens.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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