As many as 200,000 youths charged with crimes today are tried in adult courts, where judges tend to be tougher and punishments harsher — including sentencing to adult prisons. But with juvenile crime now on the decline, youth advocates are seizing the moment to push for major changes in iron-fisted juvenile justice systems nationwide. Above all, they want to roll back harsh state punishments — triggered by the crack cocaine-fueled crime wave of the late 1980s and early '90s — that sent thousands of adolescents to adult courts and prisons. Many prosecutors say the get-tough approach offers society the best protection. But critics say young people often leave prison more bitter and dangerous than when they went in. Moreover, recent brain studies show weak impulse control in young people under age 18, prompting some states to reconsider their tough punishments. Prosecutors respond that even immature adolescents know right from wrong.
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Washington, D.C., lawyer Matthew Caspari has developed some strong feelings about punishing teenage criminals since last August. That's when he wrestled with a knife-wielding 17-year-old who'd been harassing one of his neighbors on Capitol Hill.
Caspari had been taking a walk with his wife and their 6-month-old daughter when he saw a neighbor in trouble. As he was calling 911, the young man threatened him, and they began to fight. When Caspari's dropped cell phone picked up his wife's screams, police raced to the scene and arrested the man.
But what happened afterwards was equally disturbing, Caspari told a City Council hearing in October. After a Family Court judge released the youth while he awaited sentencing, he was back on the street hanging out with a tough crowd, Caspari said. That's why he said he opposed legislation to rescind the U.S. attorney's sole power to try teenagers 15 and older in adult court for violent crimes.
"Family Court is no deterrent," said Caspari. "Punishment and consequences are simply not taken seriously by the offenders. If you want to instill a sense of accountability in these teens and provide therapy and services — there's no reason why you can't provide that in the adult system — while protecting the community."
Alice Smith takes her son Erik home after his release from a juvenile prison in Corsicana, Texas, last year. She said Texas Youth Commission prison guards stood by while he was physically abused by other inmates. Last year the Dallas Morning News revealed brutality, sexual abuse of inmates and cover-ups at several commission facilities. Abuses have also been revealed at juvenile correctional facilities in California, Maryland and other states in recent years. (AP Photo/LM Otero) Democratic Councilman Phil Mendelson, who is co-sponsoring the proposal to reign in the U.S. attorney, says statistical evidence shows adult-court prosecution tends to reinforce — rather than diminish — young offenders' criminal tendencies.
"The inclination is, if somebody commits a crime, particularly a violent crime, then lock 'em up," Mendelson told the hearing. "And the research shows that is statistically counterproductive."
Mendelson's comment echoed the views of a growing number of juvenile justice experts and activists. With violent juvenile crime trending downward for the past 13 years, they say it's time to replace the tough sentences that state lawmakers enacted in the 1980s and '90s and handle more youth cases in juvenile court. The hard-line policies reflected skyrocketing juvenile crime and the prediction — later proved baseless — that violent, young "superpredators" would take over the nation's inner cities.
The get-tough measures eased the transferring of juveniles to adult courts where they faced tougher sentences. Some states allowed prosecutors to "direct file" juvenile cases in adult court; others left the decision to a judge, or made transfers automatic for certain charges.
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