Why States Are Changing Course on Juvenile Crime

Why States Are Changing Course on Juvenile Crime


If Alonza Thomas were a kid today, he might not have ended up serving 13 years in an adult prison.

Thomas committed an armed robbery in 2000 at age 15, shortly after California had tightened its laws against juvenile offenders. The initiative was part of a wave of harsh new laws passed nationwide, aimed at striking back against an anticipated wave of juvenile “superpredators” — remorseless kid criminals.

No one was harmed in the robbery, and Thomas was a first-time offender. But under the new law, Proposition 21, he would be tried as an adult and sentenced to hard time. Facing as many as four decades in prison, Thomas pleaded guilty, lowering his sentence to 13 years, which he would serve in adult prison.

By the time Thomas went to prison, the superpredator scare had been debunked. Juvenile arrest rates peaked in 1997 and have been dropping ever since. Meanwhile, state juvenile facilities and even adult prisons were filling up with kids, straining state budgets and raising serious human-rights concerns.

That is starting to change. In the last six or seven years, states have begun to consider new approaches to juvenile offenders, backed by research showing that incarceration actually increases the chances a young person will commit another crime.

That data has been piling up for years. But states recently have been spurred to act in large part by budget shortfalls amid the recession, and a string of state and federal court decisions objecting to harsh sentencing for young people.

There’s another factor: Crime overall has gone down. After peaking in 1997, the juvenile arrest rate had dropped 48 percent by 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That’s made reform easier to sell politically, making the issue a win on both sides of the political spectrum.

Between 1997 and 2011, 46 states reduced their rate of commitments for juveniles.

“There is a more general movement,” explained Delbert Elliott, an emeritus professor at the University of Colorado who studies juvenile crime. “We are past the mentality of, ‘You do an adult crime, you do adult time.’”

The Courts Step In 

The juvenile justice landscape has been reshaped in part by a trio of Supreme Court decisions, starting in 2004.

That year, in Roper v. Simmons, the court abolished capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles. In 2010, the court decided in Graham v. Florida that states cannot impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide. Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama, it expanded on that ruling, declaring mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of any crime to be unconstitutional.

“What Roper and Graham and Miller said explicitly was that kids are not adults. Children are different,” said Barry Feld, a juvenile law professor at the University of Minnesota and a leading expert on juvenile justice. The courts drew on research showing that adolescent brains aren’t fully developed — particularly when it comes to emotion and decision-making.

The court decisions, he said, “put the onus on the states now for how to respond to young offenders who are convicted and sentenced in criminal court.” The Miller decision overturned mandatory sentencing policies in 28 states.

But state responses have been mixed. Two years later, only 13 have passed new legislation to bring their laws into compliance with the ruling, according to an analysis by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform. Those states still require young people to serve long sentences, from 25 to 40 years, before they have a chance at parole. Even those sentences, some reform advocates argue, are far too long to be in compliance with the court’s rulings. On Dec. 15, the Supreme Court said that it would take up a new case, Toca v. Louisiana, to determine whether the Millerruling should be applied retroactively.

Some states have also been forced into changing they way they deal with juveniles by state or federal court rulings. Violent or abusive conditions in juvenile justice systems have been documented in 22 states and Washington D.C. since 2000, according to an analysis by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which helps states reform their juvenile justice programs. In each case, the lawsuits demonstrated “systemic or recurring failure to protect youth from serious psychical or psychological harm,” such as physical and sexual abuse by staff and other inmates, and the overuse of solitary confinement and restraints.

A Cheaper Alternative

As the recession cramped state budgets, many departments began looking for ways to reduce the costs of juvenile incarceration in their state. A new study by the Justice Policy Institute found that 33 states and jurisdictions spend $100,000 or more annually to incarcerate one young person. By comparison, it costs only about $10,000 a year to send them to public school.

Since 2005, 23 states have taken steps to keep juveniles out of adult prisons, such as raising the age of criminal responsibility and coming up with alternatives to large detention facilities, according to research by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

New York, for example, began to reform its juvenile justice system in 2011. The state was struggling with budget shortfalls, and its juvenile system was a mess. More than 60 percent of juveniles who had been locked up re-offended, and some facilities were under investigation by the Justice Department for their brutal conditions, according to a report on the reforms.

The state set up a task force to implement reforms, including a program to keep young offenders in their own communities rather than sending them to facilities upstate, and focus on their education, mental health and substance abuse problems. Since then, the number of youth in state custody has been cut by 45 percent. Juvenile arrests have also declined.

This year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on lawmakers to raise the state’s age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18.

Tough-on-crime states are also implementing reforms. In 2013, the Texas legislaturemoved to keep kids in smaller facilities closer to home instead of large state-run facilities, where reports of abuse were rampant. The state also passed two laws in 2013intended to curb the prosecution of kids for offenses in school — such as disrupting a class or bringing in tobacco — cut the number of children in adult court by 83 percent.

Kentucky passed a package of new reforms this year that allows officials in schools and courts to work with young people caught up for minor offenses, linking them with social services rather than routing them through the criminal system. As FRONTLINE reported earlier this year, the state found that it was locking up kids at high rates even as the juvenile crime rate went down, draining half of its juvenile justice budget. And 13 percent of the cases were offenses for which adults can’t be punished — like skipping school. Officials who spearheaded the reforms have said they hope to intervene in young people’s lives while they still have a chance to turn their lives around.

“The Way the System Operates”

In some ways, the change hasn’t been as deep as it seems. There are fewer young people locked up today — 6,000 in adult prisons and roughly 70,000 in juvenile facilities, according to federal data, down from roughly 100,000 youth incarcerated in all facilities in 1997, when arrest rates peaked. But the reforms haven’t had nearly the same impact on minority teens, in particular African-American and Latino youth.

At the height of the mass incarceration era, the arrest rate for white youth was a little over 7,400 per 100,000, compared to 14,300 for black youth, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Today, with juvenile arrest rates cut in half, the arrest rate for black youth is 8,400 per 100,000 — still greater than what it was for white youth back then.

“You can’t understand the way the system operates without understanding these differences, and the idea that we have this kind of disparity,” said Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s juvenile justice strategy group, which works with states to implement reforms.

Studies have found that from the schools to the court system, black and Latino youth are much more likely to be dealt with harshly than white youth who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be disciplined in school, even as preschoolers, and administrators are much more likely to involve law enforcement when minority students act out. Once in the juvenile system, blacks and Latinos are more likely to be transferredto adult court and incarcerated than whites who commit similar crimes. The disparitymay even extend to hue: One study found that darker-skinned girls were punished more severely than lighter-skinned ones.

The federal government set up a program this year to help school administrators begin to erode racial bias. The Justice Department has also started to target individual jurisdictions where its investigators have found patterns of racial bias. In 2012, the government signed a consent decree with a major county in Tennessee, after finding that even controlling for other factors, African-American children were treated more harshly in the juvenile justice system. The deal requires the county to submit to widespread reforms, including revising its policies on how it treats kids in the system and consider more often alternatives to detention.

A year later, the department signed a similar agreement with the school district in Meridian, Miss., where the government found black students received harsher punishments and longer suspensions than white students who misbehaved in similar ways. The deal requires the district to provide clear guidelines and training on disciplinary policies for teachers and staff, and set up a system to track progress.


Jacksonville youth in legal trouble have a decision to make: Agree to time in a juvenile facility or roll the dice as an adult

Jacksonville youth in legal trouble have a decision to make: Agree to time in a juvenile facility or roll the dice as an adult

By Topher Sanders, [email protected]

State Attorney Angela Corey’s office gave 17-year-old Monica Jones a stark choice: nine months in a high-risk juvenile facility or be charged as an adult and risk decades in prison.

Monica, who had never been in legal trouble before, was arrested in December 2012 in Jacksonville for armed robbery with a firearm and resisting an officer without violence. She maintains she never knew anything about the failed robbery attempt for which she was arrested.

Though school officials, pastors and a coach spoke up for the girl with a college scholarship already in hand, though state officials assessed her as low risk to re-offend, Monica and her mom felt they had little choice.

“I felt pressured into it; I was out of options,” said Belinda Jones, Monica’s mother. “I didn’t want my daughter adjudicated as an adult. I felt like the prosecution, that’s all they gave me. They just gave me, ‘Hey, we can ruin her life forever, or you can take this program.’ ”

If Monica had been arrested in a different Florida city, that’s a choice she might not have faced.

The 4th Judicial Circuit, which consists of Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, dramatically leads the state in the number of juveniles incarcerated through a method called direct commitment.

That’s usually a plea deal reached between a juvenile’s lawyer and the prosecutor. When juveniles agree to plea deals, they are often incarcerated without the chance to hear the evidence against them, examine police work or interview witnesses.

The Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), which is charged with increasing public safety and reducing juvenile delinquency, is typically excluded from the process and is not given the chance to make a thorough evaluation of the child’s background and needs for the court’s consideration.

And hundreds of those deals in the Jacksonville area are reached in the manner Monica’s was, with the juvenile threatened with adult charges if they don’t take the deal, according to 4th Judicial Circuit’s Public Defender’s Office.

There were 1,475 direct commitments in the Jacksonville area between 2009 and 2013.

During that same period, there were just 34 in Miami — the state’s most populous judicial district, with twice as many youth as the Jacksonville area. The Broward County judicial circuit came closest to having as many direct commitments as the Jacksonville area in that time period but still had 32 percent fewer than Jacksonville.

In Broward, just 9 percent of its direct commitments since 2009 stem from misdemeanors, while in Jacksonville that figure is 29 percent, according to DJJ data requested by the Times-Union. The data does not indicate any prior criminal history that could have affected how prosecutors dealt with the youths.

More juveniles who DJJ deems to be low risk to re-offend have been committed from the Jacksonville area in the past five years than from the Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach areas combined.

Rob Mason, the head of the Jacksonville area’s public defender’s juvenile division, said his office handled about 75 percent of the 1,475 direct commitments in the Jacksonville circuit since 2009. And about four out of five of those juveniles — more than 800 — in those cases were first threatened with being charged as an adult, Mason said.

The juveniles took deals that sentenced them to months or even years in costly facilities throughout Florida to avoid potentially lengthy sentences to adult prisons.

“It’s not a good practice,” said Jacksonville area Public Defender Matt Shirk. “I don’t like it; Rob doesn’t like it; our lawyers don’t like it. It’s not fair.”

Shirk said the laws on charging juveniles as adults need to be changed to allow for reviews of those decisions.

“You change the law, then you don’t have those problems,” he said. “You don’t have those threats.”

The Times-Union asked Corey and her office for an interview related to this story in November, then again in December. Two weeks ago, emails were sent and phone calls were made to Corey’s office again requesting an interview.

At 4:30 p.m. Friday, Corey’s office sent the Times-Union a written statement.

“Juvenile cases and the negotiations that occur in juvenile cases are handled no differently than how an adult case moves through the judicial system,” the statement said.

The statement said once her office determines a charge is provable, the defense is given the opportunity to present mitigation and negotiate. In violent crimes, cases are reviewed for adult charges.

“While that process is underway, prosecutors routinely ask defense counsel for offers in their cases,” the statement said. “That is a standard part of criminal case resolution.”

Critics of this practice by Corey’s office said it doesn’t improve community safety, shows a lack of respect for juveniles’ constitutional rights and compels some juveniles into facilities who shouldn’t be there.

Some juveniles have been threatened with adult court while being offered plea deals, only to have Corey’s office later drop the case, attorneys said. In those instances the juvenile was one decision away from accepting a stain on their record, most times a felony, for something the state ultimately decided not to pursue.

Bryan Gowdy is a Jacksonville appellate lawyer who in 2009 successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that juveniles should not be subjected to life without parole for crimes less than murder.

He said that juveniles who are accused of breaking the law must face consequences for their crimes but that Corey’s office’s approach tramples their constitutional rights to determine whether they actually broke the law.

The merits of the case, Gowdy said, should determine whether a juvenile’s case is filed in adult court — not the juvenile’s decision on whether or not to exercise their right to a trial.

“They’re using their power to charge juveniles for serious crimes in adult court to extract guilty pleas for less serious crimes that should be handled in juvenile court,” he said.

He called the practice an improper use of a prosecutor’s power, one tantamount to the state holding a hammer over the juvenile’s head.

“Everybody in the system should respect our constitution and the rights that it gives us, and when the state puts such a huge hammer over an individual — in this case a child — for exercising that right, then it shows that the state is not fully respecting those rights,” said Gowdy.

The practice is “bush league,” said Nah-Deh Simmons, a local attorney who said he has represented about a half-dozen juveniles who have been threatened in this way.

“They’re forcing the kid into a corner of going to a commitment or being sent to adult court,” he said, “and most of the kids are scared of going to the county jail or adult court, so before they do anything they’ll actually jump and enter a plea.”

None of Simmons’ clients could be reached or were willing to speak for this story. In fact, out of more than two dozen private attorneys contacted by the Times-Union for this story, only a few were willing to be quoted about the issue.

Two lawyers declined comment, citing concerns that Corey’s office would retaliate against them or their clients.






DJJ recommendation

Typically when a juvenile is incarcerated and DJJ has a chance to make a recommendation, the department evaluates what is causing the juvenile to break the law and looks at the child’s social history and treatment needs. It also provides a plan for treatment.

Negotiated pleas that skip or ignore DJJ’s individualized assessment undermine the credibility of the juvenile justice system, said Shay Bilchik, founder and director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University.

“As a parent, as a member of a community and as a juvenile justice professional, I just think that’s wrong,” said Bilchik, who is a former Miami-Dade prosecutor.

Incarcerating low-risk children alongside more hardened youth is detrimental for the low-risk juveniles and for the communities they return to, said Mason, the head of the Jacksonville area’s public defender’s juvenile division.

“The whole point is you keep those children away from the high-risk children because you don’t want them rubbing elbows with other children that have committed many, many offenses and that start telling them how to hot-wire a car, they start telling them the best way to break into a house,” Mason said. “It just makes them more likely to recidivate and commit crimes.”

Chris Carr, DJJ’s former chief probation officer for the 4th Circuit, says that commitment is the wrong strategy for dealing with low-risk juveniles, who can pick up bad habits, develop callous attitudes and learn criminal strategies during their incarceration.

The department uses the Positive Achievement Change Tool (PACT) to determine a juvenile’s risk to re-offend, scoring juveniles as either low risk, moderate risk, moderate-high risk or high risk. The process is similar to that used by the insurance industry to determine risk, and the tool used by DJJ has been independently and scientifically validated three times, a DJJ official said.

DJJ’s recommendations on what should happen with young people accused of crimes mean little to Corey’s office, said Carr, who retired from her position in September.

“Angela Corey’s office and Brooke Brady, her juvenile division chief, totally do not accept the premise of the intent of the recommendations of the Department of Juvenile Justice,” she said.

Brady didn’t return a call for comment.





Chapter Three

Monica’s case

Monica Jones’ personality is bubbly. She smiles a lot and likes to hug people. But during her time at Martin Girls Academy, the commitment facility she was sent to, she started to feel the impact of being around the other youth there.

She started to “lose myself,” she said.

“It’s hard to better yourself there,” Monica said. “I was starting to have a bad attitude … didn’t want to be around nobody. Because every time I would be around them they [were] talking about negative stuff.”

But she had to spend time with the other girls or she wouldn’t receive points toward going home.

She developed relationships with the girls, but it was clear to her that “they don’t want the same things that I want in life,” she said.

Before she was given the choice to accept a plea deal or be charged as an adult, many in the community spoke up to say that Monica wasn’t a danger to the Jacksonville community.

One of her teachers said she was a leader and a focused student. Pastors praised her academics and called her kind and respectful. Her high school principal said she was a model for younger students. She excelled at running track and playing soccer, and she had a scholarship offer to a university in Rhode Island.

Records show DJJ evaluation tools continually found Monica to be a low risk to re-offend.

But in the judicial system, the focus was on what happened the night of Monica’s arrest.

On Dec. 15, 2012, Monica got into a car with three other teens and went for a ride to a Northside convenience store. As Monica left the store with the cookies, chips and soda that she bought, two of the other teens went into the store and attempted to rob it at gunpoint, according to police reports.

Monica said she and another teen sat in the car. After the failed robbery, the other two teens returned to the car and they all drove off, she said. Monica was in a passenger seat. Police were led on a chase that ended with all four teens running from the vehicle, the report said. Monica said she ran because she feared for her safety; she was found under a car nearby.

Monica consistently said she knew nothing about the robbery and played no part in it, but police and Corey’s office didn’t believe her. Monica said police told her they thought she was a lookout. She was arrested and charged with armed robbery with a firearm and resisting an officer without violence.

She spent the next 73 days in detention as the state attempted to get information out of Monica about the robbery. Several times, prosecutors stated adult charges were being considered.

“Every court date, ‘We’re ready to direct file, we’re ready to adjudicate,’ ” Belinda said, recounting the prosecutor’s comments in court.

Chris Carson, Monica’s attorney, said he asked Corey’s office how adult charges could be avoided.

In the Friday statement, Corey’s office excerpts five sentences from an email exchange between Carson and an unidentified prosecutor showing the two sides discussed a commitment.

“Carson told the prosecutor, ‘I have all of the mitigation together and we are working on formulating an offer. Obviously she will be willing to cooperate fully. Now I understand that there may be some commitment involved if we are able to settle. She is on board, I am just curious as to what level of commitment we should offer. I hate to come in with a lowball on such a serious case.’ ” the statement said.

Carson was out of town Friday and didn’t have access to his records.

“As I best recall, the commitment offer did not rise from the defense,” Carson said. He said the email doesn’t contradict his account.

The state put the nine-month deal on the table, and Monica and her family took it.

Her scholarship and dreams of attending college in the fall of 2013 vanished.

The Jacksonville area has sent more youth evaluated as low risk to re-offend to commitment facilities, where juveniles are incarcerated, than any other circuit in the state in the past five years. In fact, the 4th Circuit has sent more low-risk youth to commitment than it has youth found to be moderate risk to re-offend.

It would be “very rare” that the state would recommend commitment for a juvenile receiving a low or moderate risk to re-offend evaluation, said Mark Greenwald, the Department of Juvenile Justice’s director of research.

“In general for a low- and moderate-risk kid, you’re going to be looking at some level of community placement,” he said.

Mason said Corey’s office disagrees with DJJ’s assessments and doesn’t believe in the tool’s ability to predict the likelihood of youth behavior.

During the past five years, 23 percent of the 4th Circuit’s youth evaluated to be low or moderate risk to re-offend were committed to high- or maximum-risk facilities. That compares to 14 percent statewide.

Nearly a quarter of Florida’s committed youth found to be low risk to re-offend are juveniles from the Jacksonville area.

Threatening juveniles with adult charges is a driving factor for the Jacksonville area’s high percent of low- to moderate-risk juveniles being incarcerated, Mason said.

Lawyers, advocates, probation professionals and parents said this is evidence the state’s lawmakers should consider a checks-and-balances mechanism on a prosecutor’s power to charge a juvenile as an adult. They propose either giving juvenile judges the power to make the call or, at minimum, creating a judicial process allowing review of the prosecutor’s decision.

Simmons, the local lawyer who called the practice “bush league,” said Corey’s office will also keep juveniles in the detention facility for long periods of time or repeatedly ask for continuances, which ultimately intimidate or frighten them into taking commitments.

In some instances, the state speaks about pursuing adult charges against a juvenile only to later drop charges altogether. That’s what happened to Jasmine Moore, 17.

In May 2013, Jasmine, then 16, stopped her car along Justina Road to talk with some friends.

One of the friends dropped a loaded handgun and crack cocaine into her car when he noticed police approaching, she said.

Police found the gun and crack, and Jasmine was arrested. She contends that the gun and drugs weren’t hers and that she knew nothing about them.

Shawn Moore, Jasmine’s mother, said her will was almost broken while watching her daughter ushered around in shackles and having her case kicked down the road again and again. She was nearly ready to take a deal to keep Jasmine out of adult court, she said.

“They were about to break me down because I got tired,” Shawn Moore said. “I was like, ‘Jasmine, I hope you’re telling the truth. And if it’s somebody’s gun that you know, you need to please tell them because it looks like they’re not worried about you. It’s your life on the line.’ ”

Jasmine, like Monica, had never been in legal trouble before.

“It was scary because they kept trying to make me plead,” Jasmine said. “It was my word against the state attorney and what they thought.”

Jasmine’s father was adamant that his daughter wouldn’t take a deal “for something she didn’t do.” The family hired a private attorney, and after 90 days, the state unceremoniously dropped the case.

“They never had a case,” Shawn Moore said.

Attorney Calvin Rivers, who represented Jasmine, said the state never filed charges against Jasmine, but he was asked by the prosecutor assigned to the case to make the state an offer in order to avoid adult charges.

“They wanted me to enter into a plea negotiations without a juvenile petition being filed,” he said. “From an ethical standpoint, I couldn’t do that. That’s lazy prosecuting. Why would a prosecutor do that?”

Jasmine and her parents said Corey’s office wasn’t seeking justice, just someone to punish.

The Times-Union provided Corey’s office with Jasmine’s case number for comment, but the Friday statement does not address the case.

News and Advances from the Field

May 6, 2014, News and Advances from the Field


On April 14, 2014, thanks in large part to the work of Just Kids Maryland (an NJJN member), Maryland’s governor signed into law two bills (linked below) that repeal provisions mandating the processing of some youth through adult court. Though the bills retain exceptions for some serious violent crimes, the repeal of these provisions will give judges more discretion in whether a young person is tried as a youth or an adult, allowing judges to take into account factors like age, physical and mental health, and possibilities for treatment and rehabilitation.


While there is still much work to be done, these bills will allow more youth to avoid the damaging consequences of being processed through adult courts, leaving those young people with a better chance at rehabilitation and future life success.


» Download the full text of H.B. 1295.

» Download the full text of S.B. 515.

No Child is Born Bad

“No Child is Born Bad,”

CFSY youth justice advocate Xavier McElrath-Bey says in Northwestern TEDx talk

We are excited to share this powerful and moving TEDx Northwestern U talk by Xavier McElrath-Bey, who went to prison at 13 after he was involved in a gang-related murder. He joins the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth next week as our youth justice advocate.

In “No Child is Born Bad,” Xavier discusses the violence and poverty he experienced as a child and how that led him to seek family connections in a gang. He also talks about his arrest and incarceration, what led him to change and the need to reform laws that impose adult sentences upon children.

At the CFSY, Xavier will serve as a resource to formerly incarcerated youth and will support the Campaign’s public education and advocacy efforts.

Xavier, a restorative justice practitioner, most recently worked in clinical research at Northwestern University, where he conducted more than 800 clinical field interviews with individuals participating in a longitudinal study of the mental health needs, service utilization and outcomes of formerly incarcerated youth. He previously worked in Chicago for Alternatives Inc. as the juvenile justice diversion program coordinator, as a Catholic Charities street intervention specialist with children in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where he grew up, and as a cease-fire outreach worker.

Xavier holds an undergraduate degree in social science and a Master of Arts in human services, both from Roosevelt University.

View “No Child is Born Bad”

For more information about about efforts to end the practice of sentencing children to die in prison, please visit Join us on FaceBook and follow us on Twitter at thecfsy.

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth is a national coalition and clearinghouse that coordinates, develops and supports efforts to implement just alternatives to the extreme sentencing of America’s youth, with a focus on abolishing life without parole sentences for all youth.

For more information:
[email protected]



Transfer of Juveniles to Criminal Court is Not Correlated with Falling Youth Violence

Since the 1990s, nearly every state in the U.S. expanded its provisions for transferring juveniles to criminal court, especially provisions that do not require judicial approval. Entire classes of young offenders are transferred without the involvement of the court, based only on the discretion of prosecutors or the preferences of legislators… Read the rest of the article here

Growing up behind bars

Edel Gonzalez, sentenced to life in prison at 16, now has hope.

By Elizabeth Calvin
January 13, 2014
It could have been anyone in this courtroom. Your mother. Your lawyer. It could have been me.” The judge drilled down on the random murder of a woman for her car. Edel Gonzalez, a diminutive 38-year-old man, sat shackled in a prison jumpsuit before the bench and nodded in agreement. “It was brutal,” the judge repeated with force.
This was not your typical sentencing hearing. It was a historic moment. As the judge talked to the defendant, whispering in the courtroom stopped. The attorneys didn’t move, and the guard faded back against the wall. This was a conversation between two people: a judge and a man convicted of murder.
But that man was a boy when the murder was committed in 1991. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. The United States is the only country that imposes life without parole on people under 18, and in California more than 330 such offenders have received this sentence. Edel was 16 at the time of his crime, and in December, he was back in court as the first case under a new California law.
The law, which went into effect a year ago, permits judges to review the cases of youths who were in effect sentenced to die in prison. It creates a chance for a parole-eligible sentence. It is, in essence, a recognition that a lot has changed since California first started sentencing children in 1990 to life without parole. Advances in neuroscience have made clear that critical brain development continues into the mid-20s for functions essential to evaluating risks, understanding consequences and the ability to resist peer pressure.
I first met Edel in 2007. Seated at a visiting room table in a maximum security prison, he was a somber 32-year-old. I was investigating California’s use of life-without-parole sentences for teens. Before his crime, he had been solidly ensconced in a gang since age 11. He had also been suppressing childhood abuse and loss, and dealt with his pain by drinking. He’d never met his father, so older gang members provided his only adult male role models. He was thoroughly drunk when he and two adult codefendants attempted to steal a car. One of the men — not Edel — unexpectedly shot the driver. Edel was convicted of murder for his role and sentenced to life without parole.
When we met, he had been in prison 16 years, and a coffin would be his only way out. He was a man with no reason to hope. Yet he had reflected deeply on why he had been so lost at 16, and described his efforts to be a good person since that time. His virtually pristine prison record supported his claim.
“I am a different person than I was then,” he said. “I wish I could change the things I did. But I can try to live an upright life now, even here.” When he spoke about his victim, he became overwhelmed. He turned away, hiding tears and shame. “I’d tell her, if I could … I’m sorry. I don’t know how to give you my life. I would give you my heart if I could.”
In several recent opinions, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that, compared with adults, youths have “diminished culpability” for crimes. “Juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders,” the high court has stated. “A juvenile is not absolved of responsibility for his actions, but his transgression is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.”
A few weeks before Edel’s December hearing, I got a call from a jail chaplain in another county. He said that a youth had just been sentenced to life without parole and that during sentencing, the judge turned to the boy and said, “You are a monster.” His crime was a murder with depressing similarities to Edel’s case. A monstrous act, yes — a truth about any murder.
But a child is not a monster. And that is what this law is about. Science and law compel a court to consider the fact that a young person still is developing. No one can know who a 16-year-old will be in 22 years.
Edel listened as the judge condemned his actions 22 years earlier. Nodding in agreement, he too condemned those monstrous acts. But despite two decades of believing he’d never be released, Edel had worked hard to become someone very different from the 16-year-old gang member he had been.
California’s law allowed this judge to reconsider a life-without-parole sentence in light of the man Gonzalez had become. He resentenced him to life with the possibility of parole. Edel has no guarantee he’ll ever get out, but one day he’ll have the chance to go before a parole board. It is a chance every child who commits a crime deserves.
Elizabeth Calvin, based in Los Angeles, is a senior children’s advocate at Human Rights Watch.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Sangamon Co. prosecutor supports recent change in juvenile law

By Staff Writer

January 08. 2014 10:37PM

Sangamon Co. prosecutor supports recent change in juvenile law


The new state law that classifies 17-year-olds charged with some felonies as juveniles rather than adults won’t have much effect on the Sangamon County justice system.

“Nothing has changed as far as the number of prosecutors and judges assigned to juvenile cases,” said Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Milhiser. “We may have some fewer cases in adult court, but the violent ones will still be adjudicated there.”

Gov. Pat Quinn in July signed legislation that raises the age of the state’s juvenile court jurisdiction to include 17-year-olds charged with felonies. The reform is the second step in a process that began in 2010 when 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors were moved from adult to juvenile courts on the theory they will receive more rehabilitative services in the juvenile justice system.

The new law, effective Jan. 1, doesn’t change laws that automatically place youths age 15 or older who commit certain serious crimes in adult criminal court.

Milhiser said he supported the change.

“It makes sense to have it one way or the other instead of bifurcated like it was,” he said. “As long as we can still prosecute the violent offenses in adult court, and we have the ability to do that.”

Crimes including first-degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault and certain gun crimes still are filed directly in adult court if the accused is 15 or older.

Others, such as aggravated discharge of a firearm at or near a school and some felonies done in furtherance of gang activity, begin in juvenile court for those 15 or older, but if probable cause is found, they are transferred to adult court, Milhiser said.

Other crimes are called “presumptive transfers,” but can stay in juvenile court if that presumption is refuted and a judge agrees. If the defendant is 13 or older, the case can be transferred to adult court at the discretion of the juvenile court judge.

Milhiser said his office has the same number of prosecutors — three — handling delinquency cases and abuse and neglect cases in juvenile court as it did before the law went into effect. Two judges also continue to rotate in handling juvenile cases.

The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission last year released a two-year study of the impact of the misdemeanor change and recommended Illinois handle 17-year-olds charged with felonies in juvenile court.

Prior to the 2010 change, 17-year-olds were treated as adults in criminal court, while those 16 and under were juveniles.

“The juvenile court has demonstrated a proven ability to hold youth accountable while reforming their behavior,” said Elizabeth Clarke, president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative when Quinn signed the bill. “Young people receive age-appropriate services and continue their schooling and are far more likely to change behaviors for the better than they would if locked up in a prison far from their families.”

Clarke went on to say that the law is in line with research findings concerning the development of the adolescent brain, as well as having a sound fiscal basis.

“Juveniles, who are developmentally less competent than adults, can and do change behaviors and better decisions when they mature,” she said. “This legislation will help them make those changes sooner and not suffer setbacks that often happen to youth spending their days and nights in prison cells.”

The bill passed overwhelmingly in both the Illinois House and Senate and had the support of the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association and other groups.

Illinois joins 38 states that currently prosecute 17-year-olds charged with felonies in juvenile court.

Contact Chris Dettro: 788-1510, [email protected],



Ilona Prieto Vila, Director

Stop charging kids as adults

By Benjamin Jealous and Rosario Dawson

Now that the federal courts have spoken on “stop-and-frisk,” many people think teens in our community have less to fear from the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Far worse can happen to a child after being stopped.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said what needed to be said: New York’s juvenile justice laws are outdated.

Every year, almost 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults in New York State, and more than three-quarters of these charges are for misdemeanors like shoplifting and marijuana possession. Some 70% of the children arrested are black or Latino, as well as 80% of those incarcerated.

As Cuomo reminded us, now is the time for a change. The New York State Legislature needs to Raise the Age of criminal responsibility, and they need to do it this year.

Teens are far from perfect, and they certainly are not always innocent. That’s part of growing up. A teen’s brain develops well into his or her 20s, and as cognitive skills improve, so does impulse control. As a result, teens are often unable to focus on the consequences of their behavior.

But there are benefits, too. As their character and personalities change, teens are highly receptive to influence and intervention. Far more than adults, they can unlearn delinquent behavior, respond to interventions, and learn to make responsible choices. Study after study affirms this.

So what happens when a child makes a mistake – a serious one, like shoplifting? What happens when a minor is stopped and frisked and found in possession of marijuana?

One woman, who is affiliated with the group Families Together, recounted at a press conference how her 16-year-old grandson was charged with second degree robbery, a felony charge, for allegedly stealing Chinese food from a delivery car. He was sentenced to 18 months in adult prison where he was sexually assaulted by an older inmate. Though his record is sealed, he is currently being treated for trauma and schizophrenia and may never return to a normal life.

Tired of such tragedies, legislators in statehouses across the country have worked to reverse ineffective, destructive and expensive “tough on crime” laws that treat children as adults.

Yet despite significant recent reforms in New York’s youth criminal justice system, New York is one of only two remaining states (the other is North Carolina) whose laws define the age of criminal responsibility as 16.

Elsewhere, everyone from “Right on Crime” conservatives to children’s advocates to criminal justice experts agrees that youth who go through the juvenile justice system are less likely to commit crimes when they get out than youth who go through the adult system.

From arrest to cell, the experience of being prosecuted as an adult does violence to the life of a child. Parents are not notified of court proceedings—or even of the arrest itself. Children can be questioned without parental consent or presence. They are held in adult correctional facilities where they share rooms with real adults, the kind who put them at high risk for both sexual abuse and violence.

Perhaps because of this, corrections officers often place children in solitary confinement, trading one kind of violence for another: the documented emotional damage that comes from prolonged isolation. Is it any surprise that compared to their counterparts in juvenile facilities, these children are 36 times more likely to take their own lives?

Even after a child is released, the nightmare continues. A child who spent time in the adult system may lose their right to vote. They are often stuck with unsealed criminal records which prevent them from getting work or student loans, prevent them from living in public housing, or prevent their families from housing subsidies. It’s not hard to imagine how this has the potential to drive families apart.

In the end, what do we have to show for this “tough on crime” approach? Children held in adult facilities are 34% more likely to be arrested again for committing more crimes. This only serves to make our communities – particularly Black and Latino communities – less safe.

Children are different from adults as the Supreme Court has concluded three times since 2005. We can no longer sentence children to death. Neither can we throw away the key on teens by imposing life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide offenses. Nor can we forgo judicial discretion and impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on child offenders.

We should not be allowed to sentence children as adults, either. New York is shamefully out of step with the national consensus on this issue. We look forward to seeing the results of Cuomo’s forthcoming commission on juvenile justice, which will hopefully include individuals who were incarcerated as youth. The state legislature should follow his lead and pass a bill to Raise the Age this year. We hope they do so before even more lives are ruined.



Ilona Prieto Vila, Director

OJJDP Bulletin Examines Functional Impairment in Delinquent Youth

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has released “Functional Impairment in Delinquent Youth.” The bulletin is part of OJJDP’s Beyond Detention series, which examines the results of the Northwestern Juvenile Project—a large-scale longitudinal study of youth detained at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, IL. This bulletin presents findings on juvenile functional impairment in the school, work, home, and community settings; and in terms of behavior toward others, mood and psychiatric concerns, self-harm, substance use, and rational thought assessed 3 years after the youth were released from detention. The authors also assess youth functioning by gender, race/ethnicity, and age and discuss future implications.


Learn more about the Northwestern Juvenile Project, co-sponsored by OJJDP.

Find more bulletins in the Beyond Detention series.

View and download the bulletin.

Legislation would remove 17-year-old criminal offenders from adult system

Views differ on juvenile court bill

Legislation would remove 17-year-old criminal offenders from adult system

The ‘second chance’ bill

Under a state law that took effect in 1996, 17-year-olds charged with crimes are handled in adult court instead of juvenile court. Here are some components of a bill under consideration in the Legislature that would alter the law:
• Those charged with non-violent offenses would be processed in the juvenile system.
• 17-year-olds charged with violent crimes such as homicide or rape would remain in the adult system.
• Prosecutors and judges will have the option to waive youths accused of serious offenses into adult court.
Source: Media and legislative reports


In Wisconsin, 17-year-olds are prohibited from voting, drinking alcohol or buying cigarettes. But if they break the law, they’re treated as adults.

It’s been that way since 1996, but a bipartisan bill under consideration in the Legislature would largely reverse the law and return many non-violent offenders to juvenile court.

Portage County Justice Programs Director Ross Dick said the proposal is overdue, because 17-year-old’s minds aren’t yet fully developed and a youthful indiscretion shouldn’t taint a person for a life.

“I’m not surprised, after this many years, that it’s being looked at again,” Dick said. “There were some things that were not well-thought out. I think it’s premature to send 17-year-olds to adult court for lower level crimes.”

Wisconsin is one of only 11 states where children under the age of 18 are automatically treated as adults. The law was passed in response to public sentiment to get tough on juvenile crime — especially violent offenders — by prosecuting them in the adult court system.

Portage County District Attorney Louis Molepske said he wasn’t opposed to the proposal, but prosecutors often take the offender’s age into account when making sentencing recommendations.

“Protecting the victim is my No. 1 concern in any new criminal proposal,” Molepske said. “That being said, providing a treatment alternative and a diversion alternative for juveniles is important for first-time offenders in non-violent allegations of crime.”

While he supports the proposal, Portage County Judge Thomas Eagon said it wouldn’t address the costs of rehabilitation – juveniles would be handled by county services instead of state services, and the proposal doesn’t address any of the funding needed for more juvenile offenders in the system.

“Seventeen-year-olds are basically high school students,” Eagon said. “I think they, and society in general, would be better served as being treated as juveniles as they are in every other aspect of society.”

Van Hollen opposes change

Under the proposal, known as the “second chance bill,” non-violent 17-year-old offenders would be handled in the juvenile system rather than adult courts. But those who commit violent crimes would remain in the adult system, along with those who have a prior record of delinquency.


While the plan has drawn support from the State Bar of Wisconsin and the State Public Defender, it is opposed by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

“Proponents of the legislation have not made the case that current discretion already available in the system is not effective or requires changes,” said Dana Brueck, communications officer for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. “Further, victims of crime never get a second chance.”

Brueck said courts often have sentencing discretion, district attorneys have charging discretion and law enforcement agencies can exercise discretion in crimes involving 17-year-olds.

“Diversion programs for non-violent offenders already exist,” she said. “These include first offenders’ programs. An offender’s age can be, and generally is, considered in these contexts.

“That said, we continue to believe that there is no need to change current laws and suggested changes to provide ‘second chances’ may diminish effective efforts to provide public safety, hold offenders accountable and lessen victimization.”

Flexibility for teen offenders

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families is among the groups that support changing the law.

“The reaction has been positive and there has been good bipartisan support,” said Jim Moeser, deputy director of the council.

The Assembly’s Corrections Committee unanimously approved the bill recently. Moeser is hopeful it will make it through the Legislature in 2014 so it can take effect in January 2015.

Moeser said there are a number of negative consequences for 17-year-olds who are prosecuted in adult court for non-violent offenses. Having an adult criminal record could prevent them from obtaining a college loan, getting a job or finding a place to live, he said.

The cost to Wisconsin counties of moving thousands of young offenders to the juvenile system is a consideration, according to Moeser.

“It does roll down to the counties,” he said. “We need to provide resources.”

The proposal to return non-violent 17-year-olds to juvenile court has the backing of Michael O’Hear, associate dean for research and professor of law at Marquette University Law School.

“It introduces more flexibility into the system,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

O’Hear said the changes that took place in 1996 were “part of a national movement to get tough on juvenile crime.”

He said placing 17-year-olds into an adult prison setting can create major problems.

“The juvenile system is set up to rehabilitate kids and the adult system has a much more punitive orientation,” O’Hear said. “There are some real concerns that putting kids into the adult system will make them worse.”