Not little adults

December 12, 2003

ONE OF THE country's most egregious cases of juvenile justice gone awry has been overturned on appeal, but not for the most obvious reason.

Florida's 4th District Court of Appeal ruled Wednesday that experts should have evaluated Lionel Tate, who was 12 when he killed 6-year-old playmate Tiffany Eunick, to see if he was competent to stand trial. The court ruled that it was important that he understood what was happening and what the consequences of his decisions would be.

But it did not dispute the state law that children must be punished as adults for first-degree crimes. And all those convicted of murder, regardless of their age, must be sentenced to life in prison; judges have no leeway. The appeals court argued, in part, that life in prison for children is only the second-worst punishment - they could have been sentenced to death.

Florida does not seem to have moved past the Victorian model of kids as miniature adults. But decades of child studies show a pattern of moral and social development that takes the whole of childhood and continues into the adult years. Kids don't reason, decide or act the way adults do.

It is unlikely that even a well-adjusted 12-year-old is competent to make decisions - whether to take a plea deal, whether to waive "privacy of counsel" - that could affect whether he spends the rest of his life in jail. After all, no 12-year-old is considered legally competent to sign contracts, or even go on field trips without a permission slip.

Lionel Tate had not been arrested for anything before. He was big for a 12-year-old, yet he had the emotional development of a 9-year-old and the social skills of a 6-year-old. Next month, he will have been behind bars for three years, the sentence offered in an initial plea deal that he and his mother rejected.

In Maryland, his case could have gone through a transfer hearing, in which a judge would consider sending it to rehabilitation-oriented juvenile court. Here, judges must consider factors including age, emotional and social adjustment, responsiveness to treatment and number of brushes with the law as well as severity of the charge and potential danger to the public. And even if Lionel's case had stayed in adult court, a sentencing judge would have had the leeway to require treatment as well as punishment, and to set a more reasonable termination date than old age.

No one is arguing that his crime wasn't heinous. The problem is with throwing away another young life.

Lionel deserved a chance to get better - not a door slammed closed. He deserves it now, in a plea bargain or a treatment plan, not a second adult trial.

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