Don't be 'tough' so much as 'smart'

In the March 26 editorial "Adult crime, adult justice," the editorial board asserts that Georgia law should be amended to allow the trial of children ages 12 and younger as adults.

This proposed change is a deeply disturbing example of our society's failure to respond effectively to youth crime. While the murder allegedly committed by a 21-year-old adult and his 12-year old accomplice is undeniably horrifying, it is important that state policymakers consider all the available evidence before they overhaul Georgia law.

The persistent perception that youth crime is spiraling out of control has led to punitive laws in nearly every state that funnel more youths into adult courts and adult jails. In reality, juvenile violent crime has been falling sharply since 1993, according to recent U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

Furthermore, children are different from adults in fundamental ways. Adolescent brain research reveals that the part of the brain involved in decision-making and impulse control continues to develop through age 25, which is why we won't let a child see an R-rated movie or buy alcohol.

Most importantly, research evidence has consistently shown that trying youths in the adult courts increases, not decreases, the risk of further crime. This is largely because of the lack of mental health, employment, and educational programs for youths in the adult system, as well as the heightened risk of suicide, sexual abuse and violent assault for youths in adult jails.

None of this is to say the offender should go unpunished, only that he should receive sanctions appropriate to his age, maturity and culpability in the crime. We must put an end to "tough on crime" policies that make our society more dangerous, and become "smart on crime" by focusing on our juvenile justice system and its capacity for rehabilitation.

Thaddeus Jackson, Lilburn

(The writer is executive director of the Georgia chapter of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants.)

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