Last month, 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting his teacher. Tomorrow, a Florida judge will begin considering Brazill's sentence, which could be anything from probation to life in prison. Whatever the decision, the case raises fresh questions about how the American legal system treats children who commit serious crimes.
In January, another Florida judge sentenced 14-year-old Lionel Tate to life in prison for killing a playmate, a decision that shocked many in the US and abroad. Now, speculation about Nathaniel Brazill's pending sentence is making waves - but not enough. The American public is too complacent about a trend toward trying young teens in adult courts.
The aim of juvenile courts
Both cases should encourage another look at the founding purpose of the juvenile justice system. The world's first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899, through the efforts of social reformers. Other states soon followed, and by 1950 all the states had juvenile courts.
These courts were designed to allow more time for judges to hear from teachers, family and community members, and social workers, and to look deeply into why a particular youth had gone astray. Judges also had few sentencing guidelines, leaving them free to devise more thoughtful ways of dealing with young offenders than just incarceration. In 1909, Chicago Juvenile Judge Julian Mack explained that his court's purpose was to focus less on the offense than on the offender - to ask "what is he, how has he become what he is, and what had best be done in his interest and in the interest of the state to save him from a downward career?"
By the late 1960s, the differences between juvenile and adult systems were eroding. Curiously, the change began with pro-juvenile activists lobbying for due process guarantees, like protection against self-incrimination, for young offenders. Many state juvenile court laws were put to the constitutional test and failed, because they didn't provide checks on the misuse of judicial power. Others were attacked as too lenient on juvenile offenders.
These factors - combined with a spike in youth crime in the late '80s and early '90s - fueled a growing movement to try violent youths in the adult system. At the same time, more youths tried in the juvenile system started to receive sentences in adult prisons.
Despite a sharp decline in juvenile crime rates, and despite evidence that young people prosecuted as adults are more likely to return to prison than those tried for comparable offenses in the juvenile system, 45 states have recently passed or amended legislation making it easier to prosecute young teens as adults. As a result, the number of youths under 18 in adult prisons is now 5,400 - more than double what it was 10 years ago.
But has childhood changed so much over the past hundred years that this harsher treatment of the young is justified?
Of course, children seem to grow up faster with each new generation. But do Americans believe adolescence is now indistinguishable from adulthood, in terms of how much a young person is responsible for violent actions? Do they so despair of some children's possibilities for moral, intellectual, physical, and spiritual development that they are willing to say as a nation, in law, that those children need not be given the opportunity to change?
The idea of childhood as a time of vulnerable innocence is enshrined in US state and federal laws regarding violence against young people. And adolescence - particularly up to the age of 18 - is marked as a period of incomplete maturity by laws governing driving, drinking, military service, voting - even movie-watching.
Reform, don't reject, the courts
The system could use reforms: First, the discretion to try juveniles as adults should be taken from prosecutors and returned to judges. Second, states should explore blended sentences - combining juvenile prison time and intensive treatment with the threat of adult prison if no progress is made - like those currently used in Minnesota.
Above all, neither legislators nor prosecutors should use weaknesses in the juvenile system as an excuse to push young offenders into adult courts. If the best social and scientific evidence suggests that youth is a distinct, often tender, stage of life, then the treatment of young people who have committed violent crimes ought to reflect both a society's capacity for mercy and a child's capacity for change.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor