Why they're called juvenile

November 04, 2007

Troubled youths deserve a chance to be rehabilitated, not dumped into an adult prison system that experts say holds few prospects for reform. And yet most every state in the country allows for juveniles to be tried as adults in some circumstances.

Rhode Island made the mistake recently of thinking it could save millions of dollars by trying 17-year-olds as adults. It's cheaper to house a teenager in an adult prison, but not if you have to put him in a maximum security wing to protect him, and that's what the Rhode Island prisons chief wisely decided.

But Rhode Island's move to try more youthful offenders as adults was flawed from the start. Juvenile justice systems were created for a reason - because children are different from adults in the way they think and act, and society has decided rightly that juvenile offenders deserve a chance to correct their youthful mistakes.

Research has shown that teens aren't as mature or responsible as adults. Their brains are physically different, which, researchers say, can explain their impulsive, irresponsible and, sometimes, reckless behavior. With the proper care and treatment, a juvenile offender can make a course correction.

But 14 states set the legal age of criminal responsibility at younger than 18. That means a one-way ticket into the adult criminal justice system and likely prison, even though research shows that teens will be at greater risk of harm while imprisoned with adults and more likely to reoffend once released.

Maryland's system isn't as onerous because while it allows children younger than 18 to be tried as adults for crimes of violence, it also provides a way for a judge to return them to the juvenile system. And a judge, who has the benefit of all kinds of information presented at a hearing, should be the person to make that potentially life-changing decision.

At its worst, Maryland does permit a life-without-parole sentence for youthful offenders convicted of major crimes they committed as juveniles. It's the most corrosive result of a "get tough" crime strategy in the 1990s that put about 2,200 juveniles across the country in prison for the rest of their lives, according to a study by the Equal Justice Institute of Alabama.

Colorado recently abolished its life-without-parole penalty for juveniles, though it replaced it with a mandatory 40-year sentence without review. That's not the most enlightened alternative, but life without parole for a juvenile is a virtual death sentence whose imposition contradicts society's recognition that juveniles are less culpable than adults.

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