Crime school

Does prosecuting teenagers as adults make society safer?

Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

One month after the tragic shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., another student opened fire on his classmates, this time at Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga. The state must now decide whether to prosecute the suspect, T.J. Solomon, 15, as an adult or a child. He is charged with 20 counts of aggravated assault for shooting and injuring six students. If he is charged and convicted as a child, the maximum sentence is five years in a juvenile facility. If he is charged as an adult, he could face up to 20 years in an adult prison. In juvenile courts across the country, punishing teenagers as adults is becoming a trend.

Much has changed in America since the juvenile justice system was created in the late 19th century. The system was set up with the purpose of rehabilitating young people before they became lifetime criminals. But the adequacy of the system had been called into question by recent high-profile crimes -- including murder and rape -- committed by people under 18. Some lawmakers have decided that the juvenile justice system simply doesn't work. In response, they've made it easier to prosecute teens as adults.

A law passed in 1994 enabled district attorneys to prosecute anyone between the ages of 13 and 17 who was charged with any of seven violent felonies (such as murder, rape and armed robbery) as adults. Just last week, the Senate passed a juvenile justice bill making it easier to prosecute youths as adults for serious crimes. Initially the bill, which awaits a House vote this week, was even tougher on juvenile criminals. But in the wake of the school shootings in Colorado and Georgia, the Senate struck some of the harsher provisions and added landmark gun
control provisions.
Nevertheless, the principle of adult time for adult crimes remains politically popular. Perhaps there is an underlying belief that anyone who commits crimes this serious is unlikely to be rehabilitated

But research into juvenile crimes tells a different story. As Salon Mothers Who Think learned by talking to experts about the Littleton shootings, the juvenile crime rate has actually gone down dramatically in the past five years. But coverage of juvenile crime in the media seems to have reached a frenzied pitch. The more publicized the crimes, it seems, the louder the public outcry. Crackdowns on teen crimes may be more a response to publicity than to a real epidemic of violence. Back in the mid-1980s, when violent juvenile crime tripled, the suicide rate also rose by 29 percent. As it turned out, crackdowns on juvenile offenders back then didn't reduce the crime rate -- but intervention with troubled and high-risk kids did, according to Peter Elikann, author of "Superpredators: The Demonization of Our Children by the Law."

Elikann's book challenges the idea that most juvenile criminals are incorrigible, and suggests that the best way to reduce the crime rate -- both among youths and adults -- is to rehabilitate teens in the juvenile system. Elikann emphasizes that sending kids to adult jails means sending them to "crime school," a place where they are likely to learn more about crime and make contact with hardened career criminals. Elikann is both an attorney and a crime reporter, and provides regular commentary for the Court TV network. Elikann spoke to Salon Mothers Who Think by phone from his home in Boston.

What happens to kids when they're prosecuted as adults?

In the adult system, generally a young person may just fall through the cracks. Adult courts are so much busier. Next to the adult criminals, they [juveniles] pale in comparison, and people may want to be more lenient on them. They tend to get shorter sentences, unless we're talking about a serious mass murderer-type, but most children who are transferred into the adult system are nonviolent offenders.

In the juvenile system, there are less rules of evidence, they [juveniles] more often go in front of a judge rather than a jury. The juvenile court has more time to scrutinize them. It's kind of ironic. In some ways, the juvenile system can actually be tougher on young people than the adult system.

What happens to kids when they go to adult prisons?

They're five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by the prison staff and statistics show that they're eight times more likely to commit suicide. However, that isn't even what I consider the main problem with sending young people to adult prisons.

There have been a number of studies that show that children who are arrested for the exact same crime, come from the same background and get sent to adult jails rather than juvenile jails tend to have a higher recidivism rate once they're released. They tend to be arrested more and endanger the public more when they get out. We're sending these children to what are pretty much hot pressure-cooker crime schools, where they hang out with older, more violent, hardened criminals. It may be tough on a particular individual child, but it's not really being tough on crime.

Most juvenile facilities tend to emphasize preparation for when they get out a bit more. There's more emphasis on literacy programs and job skills. When children are put into adult prisons, generally speaking, there's no education, no rehabilitation. They're kind of thrown out on the public more violent than ever, without having gained anything.

I admit, there are some hardened, incorrigible and violent people who you could probably put through every counseling and education program you want, and they're never going to change. But every study that I've seen would say that the vast majority really can change. In fact, for about 80 percent of juveniles who are arrested, it's a one-time thing. So there should not be this attitude that any child who's starting to go astray, let's just yank them out of society, send them to a crime school, do nothing to help them and then throw them back out onto the public years later, unskilled and dangerous.

What are aspects of the juvenile justice system that work and don't work?

About 20 years ago, Massachusetts actually became the role model for the rest of the country. Rather than have young children in these huge reform schools, they put them into smaller facilities where they got a lot more personal attention, where the emphasis was on turning their lives around. They found that the number of kids, once released, who were arrested again dropped.

States all over the country are trying to follow the Massachusetts model and I think that's probably the best thing that we could be doing to prevent juvenile crime. Rather than put the emphasis on incarcerating people after the fact, we should intervene in young children's lives at a much earlier age, and every study shows that really is the best way to fight crime. Too many politicians have basically abandoned children. They've cut programs to children, and yet when a child commits some horrible act, that same politician says, "Now we'll step in and spend millions to lock up that child forever."

This has probably been the most dramatic change in the way we treat juveniles in the last hundred years. We started the juvenile system in the 1890s, when the emphasis was on trying to work for the best interests of that child, to bring back into the fold those children who go astray.

That was a time of mainly less serious crimes?

Yes, and by the 1980s, a few politicians started to say, "Hey, we set up the juvenile system when the biggest crimes were playing hooky or shoplifting or some minor thing, and now we have all of these heavily armed children who are committing violent crimes. Let's throw out this system." I think that's regrettable. Although juvenile crime is dropping, there are certain dangerous children who I would be afraid to have out on the street. But the juvenile system still works for the majority of children. I don't know why we'd want to scrap a system that works so well for so many children, just for the violent few.

In your book, you mention several kinds of programs that work for kids. One of those is faith-based programs. That raises the question, which faith? And would schools be involved?

I certainly am not for any sort of state-sponsored religion. But if certain churches and temples and synagogues want to get involved in community-based after-school programs for children -- activities and tutoring, identifying children in their communities who get into trouble -- I think they can be an excellent resource. I'm not for the proselytizing part of it, though I think that just by setting the wonderful example, churches can enhance themselves.

That's exactly what's happened with Boston. At one point, the city of Boston had such a bad youth crime rate, there was actually talk of bringing in the National Guard. Then they set up something called the 10-point coalition, made up of youth workers, the church, the police and prosecutors. They worked together and decided to attack youth crime by doing preventive things and getting involved in kids' lives at a younger age. It was incredible. Boston's crime rate dropped to a 29-year low, it became the model for the rest of the country. Again, it just shows what you can do, not necessarily arresting and incarcerating children.

In the past five years or so, juvenile crime has actually gone down, which is something that has been overlooked lately. But when there was a surge in the juvenile crime rate in the 1980s, you found that suicide also went up.

I refer to that as the dirty little secret of youth crime. During that period from the mid-'80s to around 1994, when murders committed by juveniles actually tripled, the suicide rate of young people also soared. It's as if life itself wasn't valuable.

The main thing that was going on in young peoples' lives was there was an absence of adults. Around the early '70s, only 5 percent of children were born to a single mother, now it's probably up over 30 percent. When most children come home from school, their parents are working. The problem isn't just not having parents around, though it seems like there are a lot of children who manage to go through life without any adults around. There really have been children whose lives have been changed by just having one interested caring teacher or a coach or a minister. When children grow up alone, that's when they're susceptible to all kinds of trouble.

Today we have not only latchkey kids, but they seem to live in latchkey neighborhoods. In the old days, if you played hooky, some snoopy, nosy neighbor lady would tell on you. You may not have liked it at the time, but there was sort of a security where the whole neighborhood was pulling for each other.

I also believe that when you have such an extremely violent media and a saturation of guns, trouble starts. But let's take a look at Japan, which has a much more violent media than the United States. Those kids don't turn to crime. The difference is, they seem to have really good tight family units around them. So, even though I think violent media can help send a kid down the wrong path, when you have a strong family unit, you seem impervious to that.

What do you think of the juvenile crime bill that just went through the Senate?

The bill is kind of a mixed bag of good and bad things. I like the fact that there is an emphasis on gun control.

Originally that Senate bill was extremely disheartening. It had no prevention at all. It was all about punishment after the fact, making it possible for 14-year-olds to be tried as adults, releasing the juvenile criminal records of young people. It was very much just harsh punishment, rather than crime prevention. It seems like it would be very little solace to the victims and their families to basically say, we did nothing to prevent that crime, but we're going to crack down on them now, after the fact. Much of that bill did survive, and I think it's unfortunate. However, there was a lot of money thrown into researching how to prevent crime in the future. That was heartening, along with the strong gun-control measures.

Since the Littleton shootings there have been several reports of copycat threats of violence at schools across the country. Do you think these threats are suddenly happening in the wake of this violence, or have threats like this always gone on and we're just reporting it more?

Schools are probably the safest place a kid could be today despite these high-visibility tragedies. In fact, violence in schools has gone down dramatically. Since 1992, it's gone down about 50 percent.

The fact of the matter is, the lion's share of all juvenile crime is committed between about 2 in the afternoon and about 8 at night. That's the most dangerous time for a child, which is why it kind of boggles my mind that the Allen, Texas, school system decided to close down because they were hearing threats, and just have kids out on the street.

This is a period when children are out of school but the parents aren't home yet. So this is where politicians should be putting all of their energy. Why don't we do things for young people, give them something to do, someplace to go, some motivation during those dangerous hours?

Politicians often go for gimmicks like curfews, but very few crimes are committed during those curfew hours. That's just a cosmetic approach that's easy because it doesn't cost anything. But they're not doing any research, not checking into what works. They're just going ahead with something they think is politically popular. Of the areas of the country where they have had curfews, very few have seen lowered crime rates during that period. In fact, in some areas it's actually gone up, for reasons that we can't understand.

There is a movement to keep schools open later in the day as youth centers, as places where people can go and have activities and things to do, rather than return to their neighborhoods with no supervision.

Does that put more burden on under-funded schools?

These would be community programs; the schools wouldn't pay. It doesn't even have to be at a school, it's just there should be efforts made to give children things to do in the afternoon. We think that's the best way to lower crime.

The other dangerous theme is that when you do enough things like that [imposing citywide curfews] to children, they do start to feel alienated and estranged, and I think that endangers us all. As America cuts programs for children, there are more punishments, more rules -- it's as though there's a beat-up-on-kids atmosphere in this country. We keep trying to come up with more ways to clamp down on them and punish them. We wind up with children who feel very much outside of society and very disenfranchised.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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