Monday, December 3, 2007

Re-Thinking Trying Juveniles As Adults

I'll believe it when I see it, but this WaPo article over the weekend suggests several states are re-thinking the draconian "adult crime/adult time" laws of the 1990's.

States Rethink Charging Kids as Adults:

"A generation after America decided to get tough on kids who commit crimes _ sometimes locking them up for life _ the tide may be turning.

"States are rethinking and, in some cases, retooling juvenile sentencing laws. They're responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

"Some states are reconsidering life without parole for teens. Some are focusing on raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction, while others are exploring ways to offer kids a second chance, once they're locked up _ or even before."

Again, I'm skeptical. The article mentions a handful of states where this re-thinking seems to be occurring, at least legislatively. But a handful does not represent a sea change, and many states (and the public) are still clinging to the 90's hysteria of "a new mutant juvenile superpredator," flying through the air to rape and pillage communities. (emphasis mine)

"Not everyone, though, believes there's reason to roll back harsher penalties adopted in the 1990s[...] Some politicians began using the phrase "adult crime, adult time." There were predictions of even bleaker days ahead.

"Some warned that by the end of the century, thousands of remorseless kids _ a new generation of "superpredators" _ would be committing murder, rape or robbery, joining gangs and dealing drugs.

"There was an organized effort to label kids and make people afraid of juveniles," Snyder says. "People were saying their mothers had smoked crack, their DNA had changed. ... they were no longer the same people. They tried to make it seem these kids are different from your kids and that you need to do something."

"But the super-vicious breed of criminal never emerged. (The professor who coined the "superpredator" term later expressed regret.)"

I had always been under the assumption that the "superpredator" tag was some politician's creation, not an academic. But the fact that many in academia were "rolled" isn't all that surprising, given the mid-90's climate of hysteria and fear.

Students of juvenile delinquency should definitely read the article. While it does a cursory job presenting the changes afoot at the moment, it's very accurate in its depiction of the juvenile superpredator myopia of the time period, and it continues the debate we've had all semester regarding the efficacy of these "adult crime/adult time" laws and punishments in our society.

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