Friday, December 28, 2007

Babies and bath water. Part 1.

Was reading this column by James J. Kilpatrick, a syndicated columnist who, through the years, has carved out an interesting niche: Almost exclusively, Kilpatrick writes on the Supreme Court and its rulings. His subject this day is a young man who, during his early college years, was involved in the use and local distribution of ecstasy. But then the young man "self-rehabilitated"—now that's real self-help—got his degree and went on to lead a productive life. That is, till the Feds came a-knocking and sought to prosecute him under letter-of-the-law "sentencing guidelines" for drug offenses. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court. You can read the column and draw your own conclusions, but to this observer, the story once again (as we saw when we discussed background checks) raises many provocative issues having to do with crime, punishment, redemption, forgiveness and the like. Seems to me that in recent decades*, America has focused increasingly on the first two—the crime and the punishment—while losing touch with the rest of it.

Anyway, for some reason having to do with free-association and the synaptic wiring in my head, Kilpatrick's column got me thinking about the case of Lionel Tate, who in 2001 was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole (LWOP) for a homicide he committed in 1999, at age 12. Tate's victim was 6.

On a whim I did a Google news search on the terms "14" and "tried as an adult." I was rewarded—if that's the word—with a half-dozen very recent cases involving 14-year-olds whose crimes are being adjudicated in adult courts. Do the search without limiting the yield to "news" and the return is that much larger. You'll find that the number of hits also swells each time you up the age by a year—15-year-olds, then 16-year-olds, etc.

I find all of this disturbing in the sort of uncomplicated, unequivocal way that I find very few things disturbing.

All evidence indicates steady growth in the number of juvenile cases transferred into adult court (or "waived," in judicial parlance). The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) did a comprehensive then-and-now analysis in 1996, and though one could critique that study as "obsolete," the data remain telling. That year, almost two-thirds of state juvenile courts reported banishing at least one juvenile into adult court. Collectively, the nation's prosecutors waived some 10,000 such cases in 1996, up from 7,200 in the BJS' benchmark year from the previous decade. Maybe that doesn't sound like a colossal growth curve, but consider too that states increasingly permit prosecutors to "direct file" adult charges against juveniles without first getting the nod from a juvenile judge. In fact, and somewhat bizarrely (to me at least), more and more states now make the decision about whether an offender is a juvenile entirely irrespective of age; by statute, the sole determining factor is the severity of the crime. In a hypothetical (but hardly improbable) case, this means that if some 13-year-old throws a punch at some other teen at a party and causes a bloody nose, he's still a juvenile. But if the punch lands more squarely, such that the victim falls down and suffers a serious injury...welcome to the world of instant adulthood!

Overall, Amnesty International has estimated that each year, at least 200,000 people under age 18 end up having their cases heard in adult courts. Congress continues to mull legislation (like the provocatively named Violent Youth Predator Act, later renamed the Violent Youth Crime Act), that provides financial incentives to states that enforce sterner punishment of juveniles. To warehouse the expected influx of rosy-cheeked offenders, governors nationwide have fast-tracked the construction of so-called "punk prisons," which have themselves come under attack for a variety of abuses.

Amnesty International also reports that there are at least 2,225 inmates serving LWOP for offenses committed before age 18; an estimated 59 percent of them received that extreme sentence for their first-ever criminal conviction. Sixteen percent were between 13 and 15 when they committed their crimes. Of the 44 states that permit kids to receive LWOP, 13 states have no minimum age for such unforgiving sentences; one state helpfully sets the minimum age at 8. I guess they didn't want to get carried away...

More on this next time. (And yes, I know that Lionel Tate was later released on appeal and then rearrested on another charge. We'll get to that, too.)

* and notwithstanding a spate of enlightened rulings and legislative initiatives dealing with capital punishment.


RevRon's Rants said...

I think if we limit the discussion to the age of the perpetrators, we don't serve them or society very well. We need to look at the dynamic in which their violent nature was formed, as well.

Most children are inherently cruel, and will verbally and physically abuse each other if some degree of external impulse control isn't implemented. That's why there are parents.

A child who has not benefited from parental guidance will have a greater propensity to exhibit antisocial behavior than will one who has been give such guidance. To take an adolescent or pre-adolescent and systematically feed them into the criminal justice (or, more accurately, criminal revenge) system is to exacerbate their tendency to become hardened criminals, yet that is what American society is doing nowadays. We care more about getting that eye for an eye than we do about rehabilitating even a one-time offender, and rarely consider whether the crime was one of isolated opportunity or an example of the individual's inherent tendencies. Until we at least try to make such a determination, we'll keep warehousing children with career criminals, and the need for more and more prisons will increase unabated, with little effect upon crime.

Steve Salerno said...

Aaah, Ron, my friend, as has happened a few times before over the past year or so, you're stealing my thunder from my second (and possibly a third) post in this series. You make some excellent points that I'd intended to make--but you make them better than I think I would/will, so I can't very well begrudge you that, can I?