Giving Up on America's Future

The Thin Logic of Doling out Adult Sentences to Juvenile Offenders

Us Attorney General Janet Reno announced several weeks ago in a news conference that arrests of teenagers for violent crimes dropped 9.2 percent last year, the reversal of a steady increase in juvenile crime between 1987 and 1994. Since 1994, almost every state has passed legislation giving adult courts jurisdiction over certain crimes committed by juveniles and reducing the maximum age jurisdiction of juvenile courts. Many will undoubtedly attribute Reno's good news to these "adult time for adult crime" measures levied at young offenders rather than the recovery of our economy from recession. They will also use her announcement as grounds to support the Juvenile Crime Control Act of 1997.

This act, passed by the House on May 8, is currently under review by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It aims to "combat violent youth crime and increase accountability for juvenile criminal offenses" by subjecting juveniles accused of committing serious felonies to adult trials. The Act earmarks $1.5 billion over the next three years in "Juvenile Accountability Block Grants" to help states strengthen their juvenile justice systems on the condition that states which receive the money prosecute juveniles fifteen and older as adults where serious violent crimes such as murder and rape are concerned.

But if Reno's report of a drop in juvenile crime is used to justify enactment of this legislation, her good news will spell misfortune for juvenile justice and the United States.

The rationale behind remanding serious felony cases from juvenile to adult court is that tougher sentences deter juveniles from committing serious crimes. Adolescents realize that they can not get off easily in juvenile court, that they will have to pay dearly for their actions and will therefore choose to avoid these actions.

Juveniles, and particularly juveniles prone to commit violent crimes, however, are often in some sense less than "fully rational." Our entire distinction between minor and majority status is based on the premise that in general, children and adolescents are too developmentally and experientially immature to make competent judgements on a consistent basis. If we thought children were equally able to make decisions as adults, we would have no justification in denying them access to the polls, employment, R-rated movies, cigarettes or alcohol.

Demographics show, furthermore, that the cognitive and moral abilities of juvenile delinquents are disproportionately impaired by drug addiction, gang-mentality, developmental delays, mental illness, moral ambiguity, socialization in a culture of violence and psychological trauma often stemming from abuse or neglect. The story of the 15-year old New Jersey teenager charged with sexually assaulting and strangling an 11-year old neighbor boy is all too common: sexually assaulted by a pedophile, the teenager turned around and inflicted harm on someone even more helpless than himself.

That this teenager and so many of his peers have themselves been abused does not excuse them from the harm of their actions. It does point up, however, the limitations of a strategy of deterrence for violent juvenile crime.

Treating juvenile offenders like adults not only has limited value as a deterrent to crime, it also has the counterproductive effect of aggravating it. Treat a person like a criminal and that person will think of him or herself as one and behave accordingly. The Columbia University School of Public Health found, in comparing teenagers in New Jersey who were treated as juveniles and teenagers in New York who were treated as adults, that those who were treated as juveniles were significantly less likely to be re-arrested than those treated as adults. A 1996 University of Florida study corroborated these results.

Why should the alleged commission of a heinous crime suddenly qualify a child for adult status, especially when such status actually seems to contribute to recidivism in cases where children are not sentenced to life without parole? Public opinion polls provide a clue: Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed in a 1994 Los Angeles Times poll believed that juveniles accused of committing violent felonies should be treated the same as adults. Sixty percent of those surveyed in a 1994 Gallup poll supported death penalty for teenage murderers.

The principal motive for wanting to treat juvenile offenders like adults appears to be retribution. If a teenager kills someone, that teenager should pay for it with his or her own life. Never mind that a rehabilitated youth with a new lease on life is probably a fairer replacement for a death than another death. While the desire for eye-for-an-eye justice is understandable, acting on this desire is inexcusable in modern civil society. The primary function of America's legal system should not be to carry out vengeance. The legal system may never escape public opinion, but it should not subordinate dispensation of purposeful justice to the opinion of the masses.

It is dangerously naive to think that juvenile crime can easily be combatted. But it is even more dangerous and more naive to think that a degree of rehabilitation and prevention is categorically impossible. Experts link propensity to violent crimes to socio-economic conditions: lack of role models, lack of life expectancy, lack of resources, lack of life opportunities, lack of hope. These are social conditions that with courage, commitment and creativity, we have the power to change.

What is the point of spending $25,000-$30,000 a year to keep someone like now 17-year old Edward O'Brien in adult jail for the rest of his life with no hope of parole? It seems a needless waste of his life and of state resources when the same sum could be used to try and rehabilitate him at the same time he is punished. Rehabilitation may be nearly hopeless for some hardened adult criminals, but youth is more supple and amenable to change. Why so easily give up hope that O'Brien may one day become healthy enough to qualify for parole? Why so easily give up on America's future?

Merry Jean Chan '97-'98 is an East Asian Studies and Anthropology concentrator living in Cabot House.