States rethink youth crimes

A generation after America decided to get tough on children who commit crimes -- sometimes locking them up for life -- the tide might be turning.

States are rethinking and, in some cases, retooling juvenile sentencing laws. They're responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

"It's really the trifecta of bad criminal justice policy," says Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. "People didn't know that at the time the changes were made. Now we do, and we have to learn from it."

Juvenile crime is down, in contrast to the turbulent 1990s when politicians vied to pass laws to get violent kids off the streets. Now, in calmer times, some champion community programs for young offenders to replace punishments they say went too far.

"The net was thrown too broadly," says Howard Snyder, the director of systems research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. "When you make these general laws ... a lot of people believe they made it too easy for kids to go into the adult system and it's not a good place to be."

Some states are reconsidering life without parole for teens. Some are focusing on raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, and others are exploring ways to offer kids a second chance, once they're locked up -- or even before.

"There has been a huge sea change ... it's across the country," says Laurie Garduque, a program director at the MacArthur Foundation, which is heavily involved in juvenile justice reform.

But not everyone believes there's reason to roll back harsher penalties adopted in the 1990s.

"The laws that were changed were appropriate and necessary," says Minnesota prosecutor James Backstrom. "We need to focus on protecting the public -- that's No. 1. Then we can address the needs of the juvenile offenders."

Each year about 200,000 defendants younger than 18 are sent to the adult system, according to rough estimates. Most end up there because of state laws that automatically define them as adults because of their age or offense. Their ranks rose in the 1990s as juvenile crime soared and 48 states made it easier to transfer children into criminal court, according to the juvenile justice center.

These changes gave prosecutors greater latitude (they could transfer children without a judge's permission), lowered the age or expanded the crimes that would make it mandatory for a case to be tried there.

Some states also adopted blended sentences in which two sanctions can be imposed simultaneously; if the teen follows the terms of the juvenile sentence, the adult sentence is revoked.

The changes were ushered in to curb the explosion in violence -- the teen murder arrest rate doubled from 1987 to 1993 -- and to address mounting frustrations with the juvenile justice system.

Some academics warned that a new generation of "superpredators" would soon be committing mayhem.

It never happened. Drug trafficking declined. An improved economy produced more jobs. And the rate of juvenile violent crime arrests plummeted 46 percent from 1994 to 2005, according to federal figures.