Teenagers doing hard time

December 13, 2007

The family of Zachary Sowers was understandably upset at the sentence imposed on the 16-year-old who so savagely beat the financial analyst one night last June that he remains in a coma today. After pleading guilty to robbery and attempted first-degree murder this week, Trayvon Ramos received a life sentence with all but 40 years suspended. That means he will be eligible for parole in 20 years - and then, at age 36, he would be young enough to start anew or pick up where he left off, committing crimes and destroying other families.

The beating of Mr. Sowers was a vicious crime, and Trayvon Ramos deserved to be punished. But what happens next to the teenager should concern all of us because research has shown that juveniles who are imprisoned with adults are more likely to reoffend when released. They are vulnerable to attack as inmates but also the cause of problems, Maryland prison officials have found.

When Mr. Ramos enters prison, he will have plenty of contemporaries - about 1,300 who committed their crimes as teenagers. Fifty percent were convicted of murder, 22 percent of robbery, and another 11 percent of assault.

The re-education of Mr. Ramos should begin the minute he settles into his cell. He can learn from other long-timers how to just get by, or he can try from the outset to do more than bide his time. But if he chooses the latter, the teenager will have limited opportunities: Demand for rehabilitation programs exceeds supply.

That deficiency doesn't serve the public's interest now or in the long term, regardless of an inmate's age. And despite a national push to better prepare prisoners for release with job training and other skills, Maryland has done little new in this arena.

Obtaining a general equivalency diploma is usually a first step toward entry into a drug treatment or job program. But it can take years to work into them or land one of the 1,500 jobs in prison industries. Several years ago, a prison in Hagerstown created a special mentoring program with older inmates to curb youth violence, which now serves 200 inmates a year.

The youth offender program at Patuxent Institution is often the best option for seriously troubled, imprisoned teens, but it admits only 170, usually after a court recommendation. Mr. Ramos received no such recommendation.

He is but one example of offenders who by virtue of their age could prove more menacing in the years ahead. It's been 13 years since Maryland expanded its prosecution of teenagers as adults, and without reasonable chances to reform, the state is cultivating the next generation of career criminals.

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