States rethink youth crimes

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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.

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SargentMidTown 12/02/07 - 03:20 am
Their good for nothing

Their good for nothing parents are the ones who need to be dealt with.

FedupwithAUG 12/02/07 - 04:52 am
Your right Sargent. I say

Your right Sargent. I say lock them up. raise our taxes so we can put them away and not let them out when they turn 18. Chain gangs out in public doing work is what we need. Problem is we put them in jail and they play basketball and watch Tv all day. It's a waste of taxpayers money. Put them to work and you will see crime slow down and more public services get done. Every time I go down to 401 Walton way all I hear is a bunch of guys having fun playing basket ball 3 storys up. There is something wrong with the system where free room and board should stop!

a crazy old man
a crazy old man 12/02/07 - 01:34 pm
Chain gangs are what we need

Chain gangs are what we need and I mean make them work from sun up til sun down, Make them instead of paying them. The county could sell off all the power tools and such and buy a bunch of sling blades and bush axes and such and save a lot of moneys that could be put to good use like building the drag strip we Richmond county voters voted to be built.

so_solutions 12/04/07 - 11:18 am
An article in the April issue

An article in the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science shows that an adolescent brain is far from fully developed. Full brain development is reached somewhere beyond the age of 18, at least as far as the issue of high-risk behavior is concerned. Research with brain imaging technology shows that the area of the brain that regulates impulse and emotions is not yet fully developed until around 25 years of age. The brain system that regulates logic and reasoning develops much earlier. What this means is that teenagers may have a full intellectual understanding of risk and they may have every intention of avoiding a particular high-risk activity, but they don't have the full capacity to control themselves. If their brains are not mature enough to understand the risk, why are we, as a society holding them responsible for taking such risks. With over 7 million of our citizens involved in the justice system, we lead the world in this area. We need to become smarter not just tougher, we need to rethink our entire Justice System, as it is, it has failed us and the statistics are proving this everyday. Time for restorative justice folks, pure and simple.

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