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We’re less familiar with boys like Ronnie Vera. Last year, Ronnie, 18, entered an Arizona prison. He is serving a 25-years-to-life sentence for two counts of first-degree burglary and one count of first-degree murder. Unlike Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Ronnie did not kill anyone. He and a friend were caught stealing a bike in a neighborhood by a prominent community activist in Tucson. Ronnie turned to run. His friend pulled out a gun and shot and killed the community activist. One year later, a jury convicted both Ronnie and his friend of murder.

Ronnie was 16 at the time. In most cases, youths under age 18 who break the law enter a juvenile court system. Ronnie, however, stood trial before an adult criminal court. He received an adult sentence, and currently lives behind bars in an adult prison. “From 16 on, he grew up really fast,” said Yolanda Vera, Ronnie’s mother.

Ronnie is not alone. In its zeal to protect us from cold-blooded teen killers, Congress is now considering sweeping new legislation that threatens to put thousands of relatively harmless kids into adult jails. The trend is already well underway at the state level: From 1992 to 1995, 40 states and the District of Columbia passed laws making it easier for juveniles to be tried as adults. Some state legislatures did so by lowering the juvenile cut-off age&emdash;in some cases to age 16 or 17, in others, to age 14. As a result, an estimated 180,000 cases involving 16- or 17-year-olds were tried in criminal court because young defendants were defined as adults under state law in 1994. States also enacted legislation to lengthen the list of crimes that, if committed, exclude a young offender from the juvenile system. Many youths are now automatically transferred to adult court for prosecution for violent crimes and drug offenses, even though federal studies show that older inmates tend to beat and rape teens serving in adult facilitities.

If these policies were merely the price we had to pay to keep our streets safe from monsters like Dylan, they might be forgiveable. But the statistics suggest that the new laws are simply creating more hardened young criminals. Three studies conducted in New York, Florida, and Minnesota compared the cases of young defendants who entered juvenile court systems to those who entered adult criminal courts. In all three studies, youths who entered adult systems had higher recidivism rates than their juvenile system counterparts (that is, they were more likely to be rearrested).

Youths who enter adult systems are not only more likely to commit more crimes; they also tend to receive lesser sentences. Ohio and Illinois studies found that juveniles serving “adult time for adult crime” were released earlier in non-murder cases than those in juvenile systems. Whatever the flaws of the juvenile justice system, the current effort to “get tough” by treating teenagers like adults has only made things worse.

Thirst for More O.J.
When Eric and Dylan went on their bloody killing spree, TV station helicopters hovered over the school grounds, feeding live images of the carnage to households nationwide. The violent rampage came on the heels of last spring’s junior high massacre in Jonesboro, Ark.: Two boys, age 11 and 13, unleashed gunfire on their classmates, killing four students and one teacher. In August, The News Hour With Jim Lehrer devoted a segment to juvenile crime after two Chicago boys, ages 7 and 8, were charged with killing an 11-year-old-girl.

State and federal legislators pounce on such stories when crafting legislation geared towards juvenile offenders. They are motivated, in large part, by the public’s perception&emdash;or rather misperceptions&emdash;of juvenile crime. Over the past several years, the national media have sensationalized a series of unusual juvenile crime cases, feeding them to a public hungry for post-O.J. Simpson crime dramas.

Such unusually brutal murder cases came on the heels of sociology studies conducted a few years ago that predicted a wave of violent crime led by ruthless teen “superpredators.” In 1994, the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh linked arrest rates with the growth of America’s juvenile population to predict that murders and other violent juvenile crime rates would double between 1992 and 2010.

As a result, images of juvenile “superpredators” are cemented in the American mind. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of Americans polled in 1998 believed juveniles under age 13 who commit murder should be tried as adults, and a quarter of registered voters polled in 1999 thought juveniles 12 or younger who commit violent crimes should be tried as adults.

Few realize that the sociologists’ predictions have not proved true. In fact, the most recent national crime statistics appear to refute the “superpredator” myth. The juvenile violent crime arrest rate declined 23 percent from 1994 to 1997. Juvenile arrests for murder declined 39 percent between 1993 and 1997, and the rate for aggravated assault declined 16 percent from 1994 through 1997. The decrease in crime reported to police in 1998 suggests that juvenile crime rates are continuing to drop, explains Mike Males, author of Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation.

Yet there is a strong incentive for politicians to keep using the superpredator myth, explains Howard Snyder of the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. “People naturally have this pessimism about what’s going to happen, especially with kids,” he says. “If you predict the future’s going to be terrible, you’re in a win-win situation. If it does happen, you were right. If it doesn’t, your raising the flag of concern helped turn it around.”

Most “juvenile offenders are not guilty of repeated or random acts of serious violence,” Princeton professor John Dilulio argued in a 1997 New York Times op-ed piece. “Most kids who get into serious trouble need adult guidance. And they won’t find suitable role models in prison.”

Dululio is right. A minority of juveniles should be locked up because they demonstrate violent adult behavior. But behind the statistics listed above lie some kids like Yazi Plentywounds. Yazi, a 17-year-old Native American, is serving time in the North Idaho Correctional Institution. When charged with breaking into a convenience store and stealing cases of beer in 1997, Yazi pled guilty and was sentenced to six months at adult boot camp. Yet soon after, he was caught stealing again&emdash;a couple cans of beer. Because Yazi had committed offense number two, an Idaho judge slapped a three-year sentence on him and sent him to state prison.

Craig Parish, Yazi’s lawyer, reports that his client receives only a small portion of the treatment someone his age needs, such as education or alcohol dependency programs. “This is a smart kid,” Parish says. “Yazi says, over and over, that he wants to finish his high school education. Based on my knowledge of the Cottonwood prison, the only thing I think they will teach him is how to become a smarter and tougher criminal.”

Ironically, the kinds of problems juveniles face in adult systems led to the creation of the first juvenile court 100 years ago. Before Illinois established the nation’s first juvenile court in 1899, kids caught stealing or fighting appeared in criminal court alongside adults. Their sentences tended to be too harsh or too lenient; juries had to chose between letting young defendants off the hook or sending them to be beaten and raped in adult prison. For that reason, police, state prosecutors, and the Chicago Bar Association joined Jane Addams and other Progressive reformers to press for separate juvenile courts that could punish teenagers in more appropriate ways.

Once established, juvenile courts developed their own vocabulary. Youths were “delinquents,” not defendants. Judges used the term “adjudicated” instead of found guilty. “Dispositions” replaced sentences. Juvenile detention centers sprang up as alternatives to jail. And at the heart of this new system was a goal: to steer young people away from future trouble rather than to punish them for past mistakes.

A century later, politicians struggle to craft one-size-fits-all juvenile policies aimed at delivering juveniles back to the adult courts from which they were once plucked&emdash;with some of the most misguided efforts occuring at the federal level.

The Federalization Frenzy
In February, an American Bar Association (ABA) task force headed by former Attorney General Edwin Meese released a strongly-worded report lambasting Congress for federalizing criminal laws in order to appear tough on crime. Meese, who served as attorney general under Ronald Reagan, points to the hypocrisy of conservatives who push for such federalization while trumpeting the virtues of a smaller federal government. In a 1996 Policy Review article Meese wrote, “Some of the usual defenders of constitutional limitations on the federal government seem to lose perspective when crime is the issue.”

Although the most recent Congress introduced close to a thousand bills that dealt with criminal statutes, the task force highlighted specific legislative initiatives for criticism. It pinpointed as especially unnecessary and dangerous “proposals to enhance federal law regarding juvenile crime&emdash;an area long at the center of state criminal justice legislation and an area in which most states have recently toughened their laws.” In a letter to the task force, New York District Attorney William Murphy wrote that “[w]e do not need FBI help in investigating a youth bringing a gun to school.” James Pollard of the National District Attorneys Association agrees. “The push to federalize juvenile law is dangerous,” he says. The federal system “is not geared to take care of juvenile criminals. It has no juvenile prosecutors, juvenile probation officers or psychologists.”

Yet federal legislators are demanding more juvenile justice authority. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senator Jeff Sessions (R- Ala.) are currently fighting to pass a punitive juvenile crime bill. If they succeed, some juveniles tried in adult court would be subject to mandatory sentencing guidelines, which have boosted average prison sentences by close to 35 percent in the past decade, and made nonviolent offenders far more likely to serve a prison term. Hatch and Sessions’ legislation also calls for states to abandon judicial discretion&emdash;juvenile judges’ power to decide whether a young defendant should remain in juvenile court or be sent to the adult system&emdash;in favor of prosecutorial discretion. If enacted, their bill permits prosecutors and the U.S. Attorney General to make the decision whether to charge a juvenile offender as an adult. The Senate already passed an amendment to the bill that gives states $50 million for prosecuting juveniles.

Representative Bill McCollum (R.-Fla.) also promotes putting more power in state prosecutors’ hands. But look at McCollum’s home state, Florida&emdash;one with prosecutorial discretion&emdash;and you will understand how dangerous such a power shift can be.

Consider Anthony Laster. Anthony, age 15, is both mentally disabled and hearing impaired. In December, he reached into a classmate’s pocket and stole two dollars in lunch money in his West Palm Beach junior high school. Thanks to a “zero tolerance” policy, school officials had to report the incident to the police even though Anthony had no previous criminal record and was not armed. Soon afterward, Florida prosecutor Barry Krischer stepped in and filed three felony charges against Anthony in adult court: strong-arm robbery, extortion and petty theft. The young man was facing the possibility of a 30-years-to-life sentence.

He spent three weeks in a detention center. On Christmas Eve, the judge in the adult court set bond at $5,000, the minimum level for felony charges. Because Anthony’s family could not raise $500 in bail money, Anthony spent the next four weeks, Christmas included, in county jail.

Unlike the majority of juvenile cases, Anthony’s made headlines. In fact, Krischer dropped the case after a 60 Minutes crew arrived in town to investigate. But before the cameras arrived, Krischer had a promotional field day with the case. Krischer explained his charges in a letter to The Palm Beach Post. Describing Anthony as “this schoolyard bully, this mugger,” Krisher explained that to treat “this forcible felony, this strong-arm robbery, in terms as though it were no more than a two dollar shoplifting fosters and promotes violence in our schools.” There is, however, no way pick-pocketing translates into strong-arm robbery. Using such harsh language that fails&emdash;perhaps intentionally&emdash;to distinguish real safety threats from petty theft is reckless and does not serve the public interest. (It may, however, serve the needs of prosecutors, whose success rates are measured by their conviction rates.) Krischer’s actions speak even louder than his words. His office filed adult charges against more than 600 juveniles last year alone.

Most juveniles in Florida do not have such good luck as did Anthony. And, with McCollum, Hatch and Sessions shaping the criminal justice agenda in Congress, many more juveniles nationwide are likely to end up in the hands of state prosecutors and behind bars in adult prison.

Finding the Right Prescription
Make no mistake: Ronnie Vera’s friend who pulled the trigger and killed the community activist should serve “adult time for adult crime.” But he and other violent youth are a minority, and should be treated as such. Lawmakers at the state and federal levels should avoid basing their reform campaigns on unusual and sensationalized cases like Littleton and Jonesboro, and pay more attention to cases like Anthony Laster’s.

Taking such a level-headed approach, however, is not easy, and most pols don’t make the effort. As a result, young offenders like Ronnie Vera are locked up for 25-years-to-life, and adolescents with substance abuse problems like Yazi Plentywounds graduate from prison instead of high school. In fact, most juveniles who end up in adult court are repeat drug offenders. Between 1986 and 1995, there was a 180 percent increase in the number of juvenile drug offense cases waived into adult court, and the number of arrests for drug abuse violations increased from 1996 to 1997 for both juveniles and adults. Turning adolescent drug offenders into hardened criminals in prison will not make our streets safer. Nor will setting uniform legal standards that are apt to be too lenient on persistently violent juveniles.

What will? One approach, adopted by over a dozen states, has been to apply blended sentences to juvenile offenders. In Minnesota, judges hand out adult sentences to juvenile offenders, but suspend them while the youth go into juvenile detention programs. The judges then review the juvenile’s progress and can reduce the sentence at a later date. In Connecticut, prosecutors can initiate blended proceedings in juvenile court for repeat offenders. The judge imposes both sentences if the juvenile is found guilty but suspends the adult sentence if the juvenile behaves.

Unlike the pending federal legislation, which provides a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile crime, blended sentencing avoids delivering kids who’ve made foolish mistakes to adult prisons. It also ensures that those who are beyond hope receive the punishment they deserve. After a century of juvenile justice reform, it’s time we stopped paying so much attention to horror stories like Littleton and more to what works.

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