A long report from AP writer Sharon Cohen–the first in a series–takes a comprehensive look at how the early ’90s crackdown on juveniles has by now prompted a national wave of more sensible juvenile justice reform. “A generation after America decided to get tough on kids who commit crimes,” Cohen writes, “the tide may be turning.”
Cohen’s analysis hits all the major points and cites several key reports showing that, for example: the mythological “superpredators” never materialized; violent crime rates among juveniles actually dropped precipitately in this period; life without parole is not suitable for juveniles who are still developing; transferring young offenders to adult prison subjects them to a dangerous environment and makes them more likely to recidivate; for this population rehabilitation and treatment programs in the offenders’ home communities are more appropriate philosophically and pragmatically than incarceration.
She also runs down state-by-state-efforts at reform (and notes the states that are headed in the opposite direction):
-In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter, a former district attorney, recently formed a juvenile clemency board to hear cases of kids convicted as adults. The head of the seven-member panel says it’s an acknowledgment that teens are still developing and different from adults – a point made in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed as juveniles.
This was the second revision in Colorado. In 2006, a law replaced the juvenile life-without-parole sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
-In California and Michigan, life without parole for teens also is getting another look. This spring, a state Senate panel in California approved a plan offering the chance of freedom after 25 years. A package of bills that would ban the no-parole sentence for those under 18 and revamp the process allowing juveniles to be tried as adults awaits a hearing in Michigan.
-In Connecticut, lawmakers recently raised the age of juveniles to 18 for most cases; the changes will be phased in by 2010. Prosecutors can still transfer felonies to adult court.
Legislator Michael Lawlor said 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors such as shoplifting and vandalism were hindered when they applied for jobs or college. “This caused people to think … should all of these cases be adult all the time?” he says. Those records are now sealed.
-In Illinois, a proposal to move 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to juvenile court passed in the state Senate and is pending in the House.
In 2005, the state repealed the automatic transfer of kids to adult court for drug violations within 1,000 feet of public housing or schools. An advocacy group found virtually all the kids caught in this statewide law were minorities from Cook County; about two-thirds were first-time offenders – a population, it argued, that could benefit from juvenile court.
-In Wyoming, talks are under way to shed a system that routinely charges and jails juveniles as adults even for minor offenses such as underage drinking. One idea is to have judges, prosecutors and social workers evaluate first-time offenders and find treatment – mostly, without sending them to jail.
Not all states are easing up.
Rhode Island headed in the opposite direction – at least, temporarily. Last summer, the state passed a law to send 17-year-old criminal offenders to adult prisons in what was intended as a cost-cutting move. The measure, however, was repealed about four months later after some critics pointed out this plan probably would be more expensive.
And a North Carolina proposal to study whether the state should raise juvenile jurisdiction to age 18 stalled in a legislative committee this year.
At the height of superpredator hysteria, legislators threw around the phrase “adult crime, adult time.” As that era draws to a close, it seems, lawmakers need a new motto. I propose “juvenile crime, juvenile time.”