Youth crime . . . and punishment
Critics say a system that punishes young offenders with harsh sentences in adult prisons spits out thousands of hardened criminals who re-offend more violently
David Burgos was a runaway, a petty thief and a fighter diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder. The most serious crime for which he'd been convicted, however, was breach of the peace for carrying a dangerous weapon.
That alone might have raised questions about why he was in an adult prison in Connecticut at age 17. When he was found hanged from a prison bed sheet in his cell on a Sunday morning two summers ago, those questions were raised statewide.
Now, questions about the way the U.S. treats its juvenile offenders are being asked nationwide, questions that could echo in Canada, where the Conservative government is promising to get tougher on youth crime.
According to a study released last week, an estimated 200,000 Americans younger than 18 are dealt with under the adult justice system each year, an increase of more than 200 per cent since the 1990s, when many states reacted to a perceived jump in serious juvenile crime fuelled by crack cocaine and illegal guns.
On any given day, 7,000 American youth people are sitting in adult jails, either awaiting trial or serving their sentences, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice study.
The net has been cast so wide, the study said, that more non-violent or first-time offenders are being routed into the adult system – and many of these youths are later spat out as career criminals who've learned their chops in adult jails, causing them to re-offend more quickly and more violently.
"What they are learning in that environment is how to be criminals," says Liz Ryan, executive director of Campaign for Youth Justice.
Connecticut is one of three states, along with New York and North Carolina, that automatically stream their 16- and 17-year-olds into the adult system.
Ten other states do the same with 17-year-old defendants. And as many as 40 states have systematically removed restrictions on keeping youthful criminals in a juvenile system since the notorious Central Park Jogger case of 1989, in which five New York teens raped a 29-year-old woman and left her near death.
Of the 8,000 young people who enter Connecticut's adult court system, the study found, the vast majority are arrested for non-violent offences.
State statistics show the number of youths incarcerated with adults rose 19 per cent between June 2004 and June 2005, a trend one Connecticut official likened to "state-sanctioned child abuse."
At the height of this trend, in 2002, Wisconsin jailed almost 14,000 17-year-olds, only 15 per cent of whom were arrested for such violent crimes including murder, rape, aggravated assault or robbery.
In Florida, former state prosecutor Shay Bilchik used to be a hard-liner. But over the years, he says, research on the effects of harsh punitive treatment for youths began to add up.
"We saw that kids who were transferred to adult jails were more likely to re-offend – more quickly, more often and more seriously. That's when I had to wonder what we were doing wrong."
Bilchik, now at the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, acknowledges there are young criminals who are sufficiently dangerous that they must be treated as adults.
But for others, he says, "you can't punish your way out of a problem. I think the pendulum is swinging back. I think the body of research is convincing people that this is a no-brainer."
Florida allows prosecutors – not judges – to decide whether juveniles will face adult charges and prosecutors enjoyed their freedom, at one point sending almost as many kids to face adult charges as those sent by all the country's juvenile judges combined.
In 2005, a study found that 58 per cent of the youth charges in Florida adult court involved non-violent crimes and seven of 10 defendants were non-white.
But as more and more states are placing moratoria on the death penalty – and with the U.S. Supreme Court having moved to ban the execution of juveniles in 2005 – there are signals that the treatment of young offenders is being reassessed.
In its judgement, the high court ruled that executing people under age 18 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment – banned by the U.S. Constitution.
North Carolina has treated its 16- and-17-year-old defendants as adults since 1919, but now it is considering a change, following a study that found nearly half of the youths who entered North Carolinian adult prison were re-arrested within three years.
Connecticut still locks up more minors in adult prisons than any other state, but a bill disallow adult charges for those under 18 is winding its way through the state legislature.
"Changing any legislation that runs the risk of making the legislator look like he or she is soft on crime in this country takes a long, long time," notes Ned Loughren, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators.
"It seems when we move to ratchet up penalties, we act out of emotion. When they try to roll back something, they tend to move with an abundance of caution."
David Mulhausen, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Institute, says the problem with studies like the Campaign for Youth Justice's is that they assume young criminals can be rehabilitated.
"Rehabilitation doesn't work," he says. "It doesn't work in either juvenile or adult systems.
"We're not good at it. We don't have either the knowledge or the capacity to change what is in people's hearts."
Mulhausen cites his own statistics, which simply show that incarceration reduces crime rates.
He says juveniles who are transferred to the adult system, regardless of whether or not the crimes are violent, are usually offenders who've squandered repeated chances.
"These are not kids stealing gum from the five-and-dime. These are kids who are repeatedly breaking into homes, are repeatedly stealing cars."