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Should the US Juvenile Justice System Be More Flexible? - 2003-10-26


First it was a murder, and then a sentencing, that shocked America. In 1999, twelve-year-old Lionel Tate beat his six-year-old neighbor, Tiffany Eunick, to death. Two years later, a young Lionel Tate cried in court when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Lionel was one of nearly 3,000 children in the state of Florida who were tried as adults that year. But now, the prosecutor who sent Lionel Tate to jail is petitioning the governor for clemency, saying the fourteen-year-old's sentence was too harsh. VOA's Maura Farrelly takes a look at why more and more children are being tried as adults, and how people in the field of juvenile justice feel about it.

The answer to the question of why more children are being tried as adults is simple, really. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, violent crimes among children rose sharply, and the public demanded justice. Since 2000, juvenile violence in the United States has actually gone down, but many prosecutors continue to try children as adults, because they're required to under laws known as statutory exclusions. Most were written back when juvenile violence was on the rise.

Elizabeth Brady, deputy chief of New York City's Family Court Division, said more than twenty years ago, New York became one of the first states to mandate that crimes like murder and rape be handled by the adult system, even if the offender is just fourteen or fifteen years old.

"There's been some dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system among the American public over the years, and I think there was a perception that kids who committed crimes sort of got away with it," she said. "And you'll hear a lot of people saying, Kids just get a slap on the wrist. And there was a lot of concern, I think, among politicians and a lot of people to restore the public's faith in the justice system."

While children who go through the juvenile justice system tend to get a lot more than just a slap on the wrist, the public has been correct in assuming that the juvenile system is - and always has been - a lot less harsh than the adult system. If Lionel Tate had been tried in a juvenile court, for example, he probably would have gotten just six to nine months in a juvenile detention facility. That's because the focus of the juvenile justice system has always been rehabilitation, not punishment. But shouldn't a murder like the one Lionel Tate committed be punished?

Mark Schindler, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Youth Law Center, says it's a mistake to assume that justice and punishment are the same thing. Mr. Schindler is critical of the trend toward trying children as adults, and says it runs counter to America's understanding of what it is to be a child.

"We don't let young people drive until a certain age. We generally don't let young people drink until a certain age," he said. "We don't let them vote, because we acknowledge that they haven't reached a level of maturity that they can handle these adult decisions and responsibilities. But for some reason, when it comes to the criminal justice system, we throw much of that out the window."

Mark Schindler acknowledges there may be times when it's appropriate for a child to be tried as an adult, but says that's a decision that should be made a judge, not a group of legislators. The Youth Law Center has campaigned heavily against statutory exclusions like the one Elizabeth Brady described in New York. Mark Schindler says judges and prosecutors need to have the freedom to explore some key questions before sending a child into an adult court.

"What is the background of this particular youngster? Was there an abusive background? Was this child suffering from some type of disability that impaired their decision-making ability? What has been tried in the past to turn this child around?" asks Mr. Schindler. Interestingly enough, the prosecutor in Lionel Tate's case did have the freedom to ask those questions. Although Florida is one of 29 states with a statutory exclusion for murder, that exclusion only kicks in if the defendant is at least sixteen years old. The prosecutor in Lionel Tate's case chose to try Lionel as an adult, and now he's asking the governor of Florida to mitigate the effects of that decision.

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