A movement has taken hold of our nation to change the juvenile justice system, and erase any distinction between young offenders and adult criminals. Almost all fifty states have changed their juvenile justice laws, allowing more youths to be tried as adults and scrapping long-time efforts to help rehabilitate delinquent kids and prevent future crimes. It seems to be plain and simple, a minor in this country is defined as a person under the age of eighteen.
How then can we single out certain minors and call them adults? Were they considered adults before they carried out an act of violence? No. How then, did a violent act cause them to cross over a line that is defined by age? The current debate over juvenile crime is being dominated by two voices: elected officials proposing quick-fix solutions, and a media more intent on reporting violent crimes than successful prevention efforts. Minors should not be tried as adults in our society today. This is obvious through looking at propositions by our government such as Proposition 21, statistics on juvenile crime and also from specific cases where minors where sentenced in adult courts.
Politicians feel that best and easiest solution is to simply lock up youth offenders for long periods of time, and ignore rehabilitation. Most studies demonstrate that putting young offenders in adult prisons leads to more crime, higher prison costs, and increased violence (Cooper, 1997). Yet, we are spending more and more on corrections, and less on prevention efforts. Some states spend more on corrections than they do on higher education. The cost of keeping juveniles in prison as compared to putting them into rehabilitation programs is astronomically higher. The Average cost of incarcerating a juvenile for one year is between $35,000 to $64,000.
However, the average cost of an intervention program is $4,300 per child a year (Crary, 2000). Also the effectiveness of prisons to prevent juveniles from becoming repeat offenders is low. Kids, who have already spent time in adult prisons, are far more likely to commit more serious crimes when they are released. Crime prevention programs work and are cost-effective. They have been shown to reduce crime substantially when compared to imprisonment after crimes have been committed. There are many crime prevention programs around the country that have been very successful in helping to reduce juvenile crime.
Many states use early intervention programs that are designed to help parents of troubled kids in raising their children. These programs offer strategies and tactics for helping supervise and discipline troubled children. This is done because it is believed that one of the causes of delinquency is that parents of kids with delinquent tendencies simply don’t know what to do with them. These programs as well as other similar ones have been shown to have quite an influence on crime prevention.
Media reports on juvenile crime are greatly exaggerated. While some headlines suggested that a “ticking time bomb” of so-called “super predator children” is waiting to explode, the studies show that this is simply not true. Crime level indicators show that the male “at risk” population will rise over the next decade, but the levels are far from the explosive level that the media would like to suggest. In fact, the levels are lower than those reached in the late 1970’s, when the “at risk” population last peaked (Crary, 2000).
The public also holds greatly distorted views about the prevalence and severity of juvenile crime. Contrary to public perception, the percentage of violent crimes committed by juveniles is low. Young people commit only 13% of violent crimes (Reeves, 2001). Also, most juvenile arrests have nothing to do with violence. Most kids only go through the juvenile justice system once. Most youths will simply out grow delinquent behavior once they mature. The true “juvenile predator” is actually a rare breed. But the media thrives on sensationalism, so they make it appear that crime is everywhere in order to sell more newspapers, or have people watch their broadcast.
History is known to repeat itself. This saying is no lie when you look at the topic of juvenile justice. Until Chicago established the first juvenile court in the U.S. in 1899, children 14 and older were considered to be as responsible as adults for their actions. Minors as young as 13 were occasionally sentenced to death, and some were executed (Palmer, 1999). Discomfort with the death penalty and with imprisoning children with adults led to the creation of a separate court acting as the parent or guardian of young offenders. Solutions include therapy, education, and community service, as well as incarceration and restitution of victims.
“The (juvenile) court was established as an attempt to say kids are not just small adults, but people of tender years with a future ahead of them,” said Judge Martha Grace, chief justice of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court. “I am disturbed by the tendency now to lock kids up and throw away the key” (Palmer, 1999). So if we already felt that children should not be able to be tried as adults and we created a juvenile system to correct this why turn our backs on it and go back to our cruel ways of more than 100 years ago? The answer is simple, we shouldn’t. We need to better our juvenile system, a system that has been working fine since 1899.
The government has taken the initiative to come up with a plan of their own called Proposition21, which would try offenders as adults rather than juvenile. Proposition 21 would require juvenile offenders 14 years or older to be charged as adults. It would eliminate informal probation, and further limit confidentiality for juveniles who are charged with or convicted of specified felonies. Proposition 21 would require that certain juvenile crime offenders be held in a local or state correctional facilities rather than in juvenile facilities. It would designate certain crimes as violent and serious, thereby making offenders subject to longer sentences.
Proposition 21 was proposed so that fourteen year olds and older would be tried as adults for serious crimes. If proposition 21 passes it is going to send thousands of fourteen to sixteen year olds to state prison. Right now the cost of vandalism, in order to be considered a felony, is fifty thousand dollars, and if proposition 21 passes the cost is going to be reduced to four hundred dollars. Proposition 21 does nothing to protect our communities, and all it does is incarcerate children. Rather than decrease, if proposition 21 passes, crime rates are going to increase. If passed, it will incarcerate many juveniles with top-notch criminals.
These children will not be given the opportunity for rehabilitation like in the juvenile system. Without treatment and education, the only thing a juvenile can learn while incarcerated with adult criminals, is how to become a better criminal. These teenagers will not be given the opportunity of rehabilitation and will come out of jail only tougher. Our nation also has a tragic record of sexual and physical assaults on juveniles incarcerated with adult criminals. Adult criminals will then take advantage of these teenagers. A Chicago Sun Times writer states that “Prop. 21 would shift the power to decide which juveniles get tried as adults from judges to prosecutors.
In Florida, where a similar law was passed, prosecutors sent almost as many young offenders to the state’s adult courts as judges did in the whole of the rest of the country — and 71 percent of them were for nonviolent crimes”(Huffington, 2000). Proposition 21 is a horrible idea and is a step in the wrong direction that only further hurts our youth.
Many people feel that juvenile crime is getting out of control. If you look at the statistics, you can see that this is not true. Youth advocates say the “public does not realize that the vast majority of juvenile crimes are not violent, and that young offenders who are treated as adults become a bigger threat to society because they are deprived of efforts to rehabilitate them, which are rarer in the adult system.” The arrest rate for violent juvenile crime has fallen for four years in a row and 23 percent since 1994; according to the Juvenile Justice Department report released this month.
The arrest rate for murders by juveniles has dropped 40 percent in the same period. Since 1992 in Massachusetts, the juvenile crime rate has declined, yet the number of minors committed to the Division of Youth Services has doubled. Minors are also receiving sentences twice as long as they were before the state passed the Youthful Offender Law in 1996, DYS said (Palmer, 1999). If this rate is declining is there a need to make harsher laws for minors? A study funded by the MacArthur Foundation and released in December by Frank Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, also found that juvenile crime rates had not increased over time.
“Legislative activity around the nation has been motivated by the sense of a national youth violence emergency,” he said. But, Zimring added, those changes were driven by flawed analysis of statistics (Palmer, 1999). When looking at statistics you must look for fallacies in the reports. Also, on September 29th, the Washington Post Newspapers states, “60% of children who are referred to a juvenile court learn their lesson the first time.” They never cause problems again. The public rarely hears the good news in the juvenile court systems. This alone tells us, they do deserve a second chance.
Lionel Tate, 14, is serving a life sentence for the first-degree murder of 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick in July 1999 when he was 12. He is appealing. The governor rejected his request for clemency last year. The minor, who never testified at his trial, talks with state Department of Juvenile Justice authorities. “I really don’t have anything to say to the judge other than I didn’t want to be found guilty,” Tate told his interviewer following his conviction. “I wish the day never happened. I didn’t mean to hurt Tiffany, and I feel real sad and sorry for her and (her mother)… If I could repeat that day, I wouldn’t play wrestle with Tiffany” (Reeves, 2001).
By looking at his statement you can tell that Tate was just repeating what he saw on T.V. He did not shoot, stab or kill the little girl with any objects of any kind. This shows that it was not his intent on killing her. Regardless of what happened a 14 year old does not deserve to be locked up the rest of his life. What does it say about our society when we lock up our youth? To me it says that we don’t care about their futures and would rather just get them out of sight so that they are out of mind. We cannot give up on our youth.