Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From Time-Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System

AUSTIN, Texas, July 28, 2009 – Under flawed criminal justice policy that is inconsistent with evidence-based research, trying and sentencing young children as adults occurs with alarming frequency and devastating results, according to a first-ever policy research report on the subject released today by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.

The report, “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System,” provides a comprehensive look at how the nation treats pre-adolescent children (primarily those age 12 and under) who commit serious crimes. The report analyzes the available data with regard to the transfer of young children to adult criminal court, documents the extremely harsh and tragic consequences that follow when young children go into the adult criminal justice system, profiles practices in states with particularly severe outcomes for these young children, looks at international practices and offers policy recommendations.

The report finds that more than half the states permit children age 12 and under to be treated as adults for criminal justice purposes. In 22 states, plus the District of Columbia, children as young as 7 can be prosecuted and tried in adult court where they would be subject to harsh adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences and placement in adult prisons. *

Four states stand out as providing the worst possible outcomes for pre-adolescent offenders, given the combination of transfer policies and adult sentencing laws and practices in those states: Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Professor Michele Deitch, the report’s lead author and an attorney who teaches juvenile justice policy at the LBJ School and the UT School of Law, emphasized the national significance of the report and its findings.
“State policies allowing for the prosecution of children in adult court contradict the consensus of the most up-to-date scientific research. The adult criminal justice system is a poor and dangerous fit in every way for these young kids,” Deitch said. “Children should be handled in the juvenile justice system, where they can obtain the rehabilitative services and programs necessary to help them become productive adults. Lawmakers must reconsider and reverse these punitive laws.”

Other key findings of “From Time Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System” include:

Every year, nearly 80 children age 13 and younger are judicially transferred to adult court. Between 1985 and 2004, 703 children age 12 and under, and 961 children age 13 were judicially transferred to adult court. The total number of young children in adult criminal court actually is much higher than this, as the data does not include the number of children sent to the adult system through automatic transfer laws or laws allowing prosecutors to file cases directly in adult court.

Many of these young children are being treated as adults for relatively minor offenses. There are almost as many youth treated as adults for property crimes as for crimes against persons. Determinations about when and whether a young child will be treated as an adult are marked by extreme arbitrariness, unpredictability and racial disparities.

On a single day in 2008, 7,703 children under age 18 were held in adult local jails and 3,650 in adult state prisons. In these adult facilities, the youth face vastly higher risks of physical and sexual assault and suicide than they would face in juvenile facilities. The youngest children are at particular risk.

The United States is severely out of step with international law and practice. Most countries—including those Western nations most similar to the United States, countries in the developing world, Islamic nations, and even countries often considered to be human rights violators—repudiate the practice of trying young children as adults and giving them long sentences.

The report makes recommendations to national and state policymakers, including:

Keep young children in the juvenile justice system. Access to the adult system must be restricted in several ways, including by raising the age for transfer, eliminating automatic-transfer laws and direct-file laws for young children, and creating reverse-transfer laws allowing criminal court judges to return children to juvenile court at any stage of processing.

Disallow mandatory sentencing of young children in adult criminal court. Mandatory sentencing laws intended to apply to adults should be more flexible when applied to children who are transferred to adult court. Judges should have the discretion to take account of their youth and amenability to rehabilitation as mitigating circumstances.

Always provide parole opportunities for young children transferred to the adult criminal justice system, regardless of sentence length. Children as young as 7 could receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Young children in the adult criminal justice system should be housed in juvenile facilities. Young children must not be mixed with the adult criminal population. Any adult correctional facility holding juveniles should be required to comply with professional standards and should be subject to independent oversight of the children’s confinement conditions.

* The 22 states (plus the District of Columbia) where children as young as 7 can be treated as adults are: Alaska, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In addition, Kansas and Vermont set the age at 10, and Colorado, Missouri, and Montana allow 12 year olds to be transferred to adult court.

Contact: Susan Binford, 512-232-4006,, or Michele Deitch, 512-328-8330,


The New York Times - 12 and in Prison - July 27, 2009

The Post and Courier - Study: S.C.'s treatment of 'kid criminals' worst in nation - July 28, 2009

Ultimo Segundo - Editorial: Condenação de crianças em sistema penal adulto gera debate - July 28, 2009

The Post and Courier - Long terms for young draw fire - July 29, 2009

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review - Study: Incarcerating youths in adult prison leads to abuse, higher costs - July 29, 2009


Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Sentencing Project Releases National Report: 1 in 11 Prisoners Serving Life Sentences

A new report released by The Sentencing Project finds a record 140,610 individuals are now serving life sentences in state and federal prisons, 6,807 of whom were juveniles at the time of the crime. In addition, 29% of persons serving a life sentence (41,095) have no possibility of parole, and 1,755 were juveniles at the time of the crime.

No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America represents the first nationwide collection of life sentence data documenting race, ethnicity and gender. The report's findings reveal overwhelming racial and ethnic disparities in the allocation of life sentences: 66% of all persons sentenced to life are non-white, and 77% of juveniles serving life sentences are non-white.

This report includes a large section that discusses the issue of juveniles serving life without parole sentences. Click here to view or download the report in PDF format.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Should Minors Ever Face Life Without Parole?

Four years ago the high court decided no minor should face the death penalty. Now it's poised to determine if youths should face life without a chance of parole.

by Lewis Beale
July 7, 2009

The Supreme Court's 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons struck down the death penalty for juveniles, citing the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But that left another possible Eighth Amendment issue on the table: whether sentences of life without parole for juveniles are constitutional.

That question is now being considered on both the judicial and legislative levels. In the term beginning this October, the Supremes will hear two cases — one involving a 13-year-old sex offender, the other a 17-year-old probation violator present when a felony murder occurred — both aiming to challenge life-without-parole sentences for juveniles (known by the unwieldy acronym JLWOP). Concurrently, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security has been gathering testimony on a bill that would mandate parole hearings for JLWOP prisoners. The bill covers federal cases and gives states a financial incentive to comply with its terms.

"There is so much attention on this issue right now," says Baylor Law School professor Mark Osler, who has testified in favor of the proposed House bill, H.R. 2289. "I think in part it's because you have groups doing a good job advocating on it, and the idea is becoming more and more prevalent — that instead of wholesale change, we are smoothing off the rougher edges of the justice system, and that includes a focus on children."

Opponents to a change suggest that a focus on the prisoners as children, and not offenders, is wrong-headed and ahistorical. In its brief before the Supreme Court in the 13-year-old sex offender case, the State of Florida Attorney General's Office wrote, "Outside the context of the death penalty, this Court has always examined whether a sentence is grossly disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment by examining the sentence in relation to the offender's instant offense and prior offenses, not the individual characteristics of offender, such as age or mental capacity."

But the historical precedence is under assault.

"Juvenile crime has been going down, so people are starting to use that as political cover to raise the issue of why we have these overly punitive juvenile justice policies in place," said Ashley Nellis of the Sentencing Project. "And it's just a good time to be re-examining policies fiscally because incarceration is expensive, and life sentences are the most expensive."

The United States is one of the few countries that hand out JLWOP sentences. A 2005 Amnesty International study found that life without parole for juveniles is theoretically available in a dozen countries, but besides the U.S., only three others actually had teens serving such sentences — Israel with seven, South Africa with four and Tanzania with one.

In contrast, Sentencing Project Executive Director Mark Maurer noted in his testimony before the House subcommittee that 2,500 U.S. teenagers are incarcerated with no hope of release, most of them people of color. A majority of these — as many as 60 percent — are first-time offenders, and more than one quarter were convicted of felony murder, meaning they were participating in a crime when a murder occurred, but didn't do the actual killing.

"That's typical in a juvenile case where they are hanging out with older kids," Nellis says. "They don't realize they will do something bad, someone dies, and they wind up with life without parole."

An example of this is the case of Rebecca Falcon, a Florida 15-year-old who in 1997 hailed a cab with a gun-toting 18-year-old friend. The driver was shot in the head and died. Although it was never established in court who pulled the tri gger — the teens accused each other — because Falcon was on the scene, she was sentenced to life without parole.

JLWOP sentences contravene several international treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which has been ratified by every country except the U.S. and Somalia), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the U.S. has signed) and a 2007 U.N. General Assembly resolution calling on all nations to abolish the juvenile death penalty and JLWOP (the vote was 176-1, the U.S. dissenting).

Despite the international momentum, the U.S. is just beginning to discuss the issue. One reason, says Nellis, is the ongoing fear the public has about so-called "bad seed" children in their midst.

"There was this tough-on-crime perspective that dominated in the '90s," she says, "and you can see this in laws that moved juveniles into the adult system. There was also this public outcry promoted by politicians that there was this super predator, that laws needed to be toughened to deal with this kind of juvenile."

Professor Osler adds that because many of these JLWOP sentences are "concentrated in a few states — California, Pennsylvania, Michigan — and they're not the states you'd expect [meaning places like Texas, with its high adult execution rate] ... my suspicion is that there was a political moment where that seemed like the answer to a problem, whether it was youth violence or gangs."

The trouble here is that these sentences send a message that the juvenile, no matter how young, is irredeemable, and that, Osler says, "is the argument you hear over and over, that there's no hope for change based on what we saw them do."

Yet this kind of thinking is contradicted by research, which has found that adolescent brains are undeveloped in areas associated with impulse control, emotional response, risk assessment and moral reasoning. Which means, says Bryan A. Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, who testified on hearings about H.R. 2289, that "young teens experience widely fluctuating emotions and vulnerability to stress and peer pressure without the adult ability to resist impulses and risk-taking behavior or the adult capacity to control their emotions."

In fact, some social scientists believe full emotional and moral maturity doesn't occur until people are in their 20s, which means an incarcerated teenager, given the proper counseling and rehabilitation (a big if), could conceivably mature into a responsible adult.

This is what H.R. 2289 is trying to take into account. The bill would mandate that every JLWOP prisoner "receives, not less than once during the first 15 years of incarceration, and not less than every three years thereafter, a meaningful opportunity for parole or other form of supervised release." States in noncompliance of this mandate would be penalized by a 10 percent cut in the anticrime funding they would normally receive under the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968.

While a number of high-profile organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and The Center for Law and Global Justice at the University of San Francisco School of Law have produced reports castigating the U.S. for its policies on JLWOP, and PBS's Frontline documentary series produced a 2007 piece, "When Kids Get Life," widely viewed as sympathetic to the cause, opponents of loosening sentences have stood their ground. Critics of the act, which include the National District Attorneys Association, claim it is yet another example of the federal government butting into state issues and lumps all JLWOP offenders into the same eligible-for-parole category no matter how heinous the offense.

"That [last argument] would make a lot more sense if you required a mandatory release date," Osler says. "This bill is just about parole, and a lot of people up for parole never get parole. If you have a kid in for 15 years, and he still has a lot of problems, that kid will not be released."

But as Santa Mateo County, Calif., District Attorney James P. Fox noted in his testimony, the mere fact that a juvenile was prosecuted as an adult suggests he or she already has a lot of problems.

"The unwritten but clear implication of this proposed legislation is that too many juvenile offenders are prosecuted and sentenced as adults in our country," he testified. "The reality is, in fact, quite the opposite. Very few juveniles are prosecuted and sentenced as adults in America, contrary to the unwritten implication of this proposed legislation and a public misperception driven in large part by sensationalistic media coverage of certain high-profile cases. Few jurisdictions in America prosecute more than 1 to 2 percent of juvenile criminal offenders as adults, and in some jurisdictions, this percentage is even lower. In those cases where adult-court prosecution does occur, the simple fact of the matter is that adult-court prosecution is clearly warranted in these instances."

No one knows if H.R. 2289 will become law (it has yet to be voted out of committee), but with the Democratic majority in Congress, it probably has a decent shot. In the meantime, the two cases coming before the Supreme Court will go a long way toward determining how this country deals with its juvenile criminals. Yet because of the significant differences between them, people like Nellis are predicting a split decision.

"My expectation is that they will answer two different questions," she says. "They may talk about juvenile life for very young ages in the Sullivan case [the 13-year-old sex offender], and they might deal with probation violations in the second case. We're hopeful that at the very least life without parole cannot be used in non-homicide cases."