Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Trying youth as adults is ineffective

The Legal Aid Justice Center released a report this month that tells the stories of young people tried and incarcerated as adults in Virginia. The report concludes that trying youth as adults is ineffective.

Virginia is hardly the only state to try children as adults. In fact, all states have provisions for trying people as young as 14 (in some states as young as 10!) as adults in certain cases. The problem, however, is that children are not adults and shouldn’t be tried as such.

The report summarizes four major findings:
  1. Trying and sentencing youth in adult courts increases recidivism;
  2. Youth convicted as adults are not offered therapeutic services (like their peers in the juvenile justice system);
  3. Juvenile justice professionals “support reform of the system”; and
  4. The threat of being tried as an adult is used as a plea bargaining tool and hampers a meaningful defense for the youth in question.
Though this report was only released this month, its findings are hardly new. Juvenile justice professionals have long advocated for a juvenile justice system specific to the needs of young offenders. These professionals request funding for social service programs that would help rehabilitate young offenders, while many communities push for “tough-on-crime” stances that end up increasing the rates of recidivism when juveniles don’t get access to the education and therapy they need.

Inner Thoughts & Outbursts has covered juvenile justice issues in the past. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles. One of the major factors in the ruling was the fact that teenagers’ brains are not fully-developed. This seems like such an obvious justification for education and rehabilitation that though it shouldn’t surprise me, it still irks me to find that many people possess a lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality when it comes to juvenile offenders.

In fact, I was disgusted when I read a recent article about the conviction of Steven Spader, who was convicted of a 2009 murder and sentenced to life without parole. Though his crime was horrific and reprehensible, New Hampshire Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson was out of line when she addressed Spader, reportedly saying, “you belong in a cage… for the rest of your pointless life.” A juror on the case later said that he believed Abramson would have imposed the death penalty if possible, but that Spader was only 18 at the time of the murder and, due to state law, not eligible to be put to death for his crime.

Quite frankly, it is not whether or not Spader should be punished; that fact has already been determined by the law. Instead, I take issue with the fact that the judge felt it was her place to be insulting. Though an adult in some senses, Steven Spader was only 18 at the time of the murder – not old enough to drink alcohol or even rent a car without surcharges. Calling Spader's life "pointless" was unnecessary.

Ultimately, we need to start thinking about the criminal justice (and especially the juvenile justice) system logically, rather than emotionally. If trying and sentencing juveniles as adults leads to increased recidivism, we need to change! It seems obvious that surrounding an impressionable teenager with "hardened criminals" might affect his future in regard to crime; if we instead provided him with an education and counseling, perhaps he might grow up to be a productive member of society.

No comments: