For youths on trial, a tough state

Florida's stand on trying kids as adults comes under scrutiny in a murder trial.

There were two lives on the line last year when 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill shot and killed his seventh-grade English teacher at a Florida school.

The impact of the teacher's death is already known: He leaves behind a widow, two children, and hundreds of students. What remains to be determined is what will happen to the other life.

For the past week, prosecutors have been working to convince a jury that Nathaniel, now 14, is a coldblooded murderer who has forfeited any right to ever again live freely in society.

Defense lawyers counter that their client is a frightened, confused kid who made a terrible mistake. They say the gun went off accidentally.

With jury deliberations beginning as early as today, the Brazill case is raising questions about the way Florida, in particular, deals with children who commit serious crimes. The state has staked out one of the most aggressive positions in the US in terms of trying children as adults.

Florida's position has brought the issues into sharp focus. Should children be tried as adults and, if convicted, treated just as harshly as adult criminals? Or should they be treated differently because of a reduced ability to fully recognize the consequences of their actions, and because of the possibility that some day they might be rehabilitated?

"What does it say about us as a state that a 12-year-old is beyond redemption?" asks Stephen Harper, a Miami lawyer and juvenile-justice professor at the University of Miami Law School. "It suggests that troubled children, vulnerable children, are disposable."

Case of alleged wrestling moves

Florida's position already gained attention earlier this year, when a 14-year-old Fort Lauderdale boy received a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for killing a six-year-old playmate while allegedly practicing professional wrestling moves he had seen on television.

Prosecutors had offered the boy, Lionel Tate, a plea bargain in which he would serve three years in prison. But his lawyers rejected the deal. Lionel's lawyers are expected to seek clemency from Gov. Jeb Bush.

Like Lionel, Nathaniel Brazill faces life in prison without parole if convicted of first-degree murder or an equivalent charge. Prosecutors in the Brazill case offered a plea bargain of 25 years in prison. The deal was rejected.

Neither of the two boys had ever been in serious trouble with the law before, yet prosecutors in both cases decided to put them on trial as adults because of the seriousness of the charges against them.

On the one hand, some prosecutors and victims-rights organizations say that trying children as adults fulfills a need to hold criminals accountable for particularly serious crimes. From this point of view, the priority is not measuring culpability, but rather implementing punishment.

On the other hand, juvenile-justice experts say that the decision to try a young teen as an adult immediately shifts the focus of state efforts away from attempting to understand and help the child.

"There is almost something barbaric about assuming that these 12- and 13-year-old kids are adults who should be sent away for the rest of their lives," says Marsha Levick, legal director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. "When you look at Lionel Tate or Nathaniel Brazill, these are not junior adults. They don't become adults by virtue of some form of behavior they engage in."

She adds, "There is a growing body of research now that supports the view, particularly with kids under the age of 13, that they can't form adult criminal intent. They don't have the same competency and capacity that an ordinary adult has to commit a crime."

A middle-of-the-road approach

Some states have tried to strike a balance between harsh, mandatory adult sentences and what some lawmakers view as excessively lenient programs for juveniles. In Texas, state law provides for so-called blended sentences, in which a juvenile who commits a serious crime can receive a kind of mid-level sentence. Part is to be served in a juvenile facility, while state officials have the option of continuing incarceration at an adult facility, if necessary.

A bill to provide such blended sentencing in Florida was defeated earlier this spring because of budget concerns. But the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Steven Geller, says it will be reintroduced in the legislature's next session.

"In each of these cases, you have a child who is 13 years old at the time of the offense. They have clean records and committed one act that is completely out of character," Senator Geller says. "There ought to be something in our juvenile-justice system that is more than a slap on the wrist but is less than throwing these children away for the rest of their lives."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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