Rethink how we punish juveniles

The desire for revenge that clouds our judgment in dealing with juvenile offenders must end.

The original juvenile justice system was based on a rehabilitative model that offered treatment to young offenders. But rehabilitation was replaced by retribution in the 1990s as a result of a staggering increase in juvenile crime.

Legislators passed draconian laws that transferred youth to adult criminal court if they committed certain offenses, so that juvenile offenders would face long sentences in the adult system.

But the spike in crime was short-lived. Juvenile crime rates returned to normal levels in 1995 and generally have dropped since then. Nonetheless, by 2006 every state had passed a juvenile transfer law.

Georgia’s contribution to the cause was The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1994, known as SB 440. It gave the superior (adult) court exclusive jurisdiction over the trial of any child 13 to 17 years of age alleged to have committed specified offenses, including murder and rape. These offenses became known as the “seven deadly sins.” SB 440 was a direct response to the public cry for tougher sanctions against violent juvenile criminals. It also reflected the growing perception that juvenile court, with its focus on treatment and rehabilitation, was too lenient on young offenders.

Proponents of SB 440 argued that its two primary goals were deterrence and retribution, and both would be better accomplished in the superior court, where longer sentences would send the “right message” to current and potential youthful offenders. But national academicians, including Dr. Edwin Risler at the University of Georgia, tested this hypothesis and found that juvenile transfer policies did not work.

Researchers found that trying juveniles as adults contributed to higher recidivism rates among juveniles who were transferred to the adult criminal justice system in comparison to similar youth who were retained in the juvenile system.

In one Florida study involving 950 juveniles, 144 youth as well as juvenile and adult correction staff members were interviewed. Their candid comments help explain why juveniles fare poorly in the adult system and are more likely to commit crimes after leaving it.

Juveniles in adult facilities reported far more humiliation and the fear of brutalization in comparison to those in juvenile facilities. Adult institution staff reported that juveniles were more immature and susceptible to antisocial influences of leaders. Officials also reported that juveniles were at greater risk of being beaten and sexually victimized by older inmates. Thus, youth in the adult system are more likely to be brutalized by, and learn from, hardened criminals than if they stay in the juvenile system.

State Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, recently proposed SB 292, which offers needed reforms to Georgia’s juvenile justice system. If enacted, the law would keep arrested youth from adults and keep juveniles whose case has been transferred to adult court housed in juvenile, rather than adult, facilities until the youth turns 17.

SB 292 is a step in the right direction. But it retains the SB 440 provision in which juveniles, ages 13-17, are automatically transferred to the jurisdiction of the superior court if they commit any of the seven deadly sins. Only time will tell if a better solution would be to have juvenile court judges, who know youth best, retain jurisdiction over all juvenile cases and transfer to adult court those youth who are not amenable to treatment.

Luis A. Velez, a Georgia State University law graduate, has worked at the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice, NYC Criminal Justice Agency and New York County District Attorney’s Office.