We thought of the children

For years I’ve written about the sorry state of the juvenile justice system and the inattention we pay to the lives of the children who get caught up in it, sometimes through no fault of their own. So it heartens me (with some pretty important reservations) to see this report [PDF] from the Justice Policy Institute about the remarkable transformation of CT’s juvenile justice system from one of complete failure to that of a role model for the rest of the country in about 10 short years. From their executive summary [PDF]:

In 2007, Connecticut made national headlines when it passed a law ending its status as one of just three states that automatically tried and punished all 16 and 17 year-olds as adults. Yet this historic   “Raise the Age” legislation is just one of many reforms enacted by Connecticut’s juvenile justice system in recent years. Propelled by a determined coalition of advocates and public sector innovators, Connecticut has forged a new consensus for progressive change in juvenile justice, and it has transformed a previously wasteful, punitive, ineffective, and often abusive juvenile justice system into a national model – at no additional cost to taxpayers. Perhaps more than any other state, Connecticut has absorbed the growing body of knowledge about youth development and delinquency, adopted its lessons, and used the information to fundamentally re-invent its approach to juvenile justice. As a result, Connecticut’s system today is far and away more successful, more humane, and more cost-effective than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

And the evidence is staggering: residential commitments for juveniles are down 70% despite the influx of 16 and 176 year olds into the system; the number of juveniles locked up for “status offenses” (missing school, etc.) has become negligible; the number of youth tried and convicted as adults has also drastically declined:

For decades, Connecticut was one of only three states that prosecuted and punished all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. In 2007, the state enacted historic legislation to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 16 to 18, effective January 1, 2010 for 16 year olds and July 1, 2012 for 17 year olds. Even before 17 year-olds became eligible for juvenile court on July 1, 2012, the new law had enabled 8,325 16 year-olds to avoid prosecution and punishment in the adult criminal justice system. Extending juvenile jurisdiction to 16 year-olds has increased juvenile caseloads far less than expected (22 percent actual versus 40 percent projected); as a result the state spent nearly $12 million less in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 than it had budgeted. Meanwhile, 16 year-olds served by the juvenile system have had higher success rates in alternative programs and lower rearrest rates than youth 15 and younger, disproving concerns that they should be in the adult system.

That’s great and all and everyone involved with this staggering reform must be commended. But.

But as I’ve written before, there are 14 and 15 and 16 and 17 year olds who are still treated as adults. And still subjected to the horrors of the adult criminal system and adult prisons:

Department of Correction data show that youth incarcerated in adult correctional facilities suffer alarming recidivism: 85 percent are re-arrested within two years of release, 62 percent are convicted of new crimes, and 70 percent return to prison on a new charge or parole violation.

Pursuant to C.G.S. 46b-127, any child 14 and older, who is accused of a Class B or A felony is automatically transferred to adult court and treated like an adult. There is no discretion; the legislature, in their “hard on crime”  binges in the 90s, took that power away from the prosecutor and the judge. At the same time, they legislature removed the defendant’s seat at the table. The defense can no longer put on a hearing or ask that the case remain in juvenile court.

Even when the case is in adult court, no one except the prosecutor has the authority to decide to send it back. There’s no oversight and, unlike New Jersey [PDF], our legislature and courts haven’t decided that the decision to treat 14 year olds like adults is important enough to warrant that someone, somewhere state their reasons for doing so on the record. There is absolutely no accountability and the only thing that matters is checking off a box on a list.

So, you say, that’s fine. Even a 14 year old should be held accountable for a serious crime. No doubt. But do you know the punishments Class A and B felonies expose a teenager to? Class B felonies have a 20 year maximum and Class A 25 years, both longer than the life that the teenager would have lived up to that point.

Making matters worse is the mandatory-minimums. There is a lengthy list of crimes for which 14 year old children have to be tried as adults which carry mandatory minimum sentences of 5 or 10 years. And that means no matter how much anyone thinks it’s wrong, the child must get that time in jail. Minimum.

According to the data in this report, in 2010, approximately 170 children were automatically transferred to adult court and kept there and treated as adults. How many of them are now serving long, mandatory prison sentences in adult court? Whose 14 year old is going through absolute hell?

When the Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, it made no distinction between 14, 15, 16 and 17  year olds. Because the Court recognized that they were, after all, children. Why do we insist differently?

Our decisions rested not only on common sense — on what “any parent knows” — but on science and social science as well. Id., at 569, 125 S.Ct. 1183. In Roper, we cited studies showing that “`[o]nly a relatively small proportion of adolescents'” who engage in illegal activity “`develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.'” Id., at 570, 125 S.Ct. 1183 (quoting Steinberg & Scott, Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, 1014 (2003)). And in Graham, we noted that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds” — for example, in “parts of the brain involved in behavior control.” 560 U.S., at ___, 130 S.Ct., at 2026.[5] We reasoned that those findings — 2465*2465 of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences — both lessened a child’s “moral culpability” and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his “`deficiencies will be reformed.'” Id., at ___, 130 S.Ct., at 2027 (quoting Roper, 543 U.S., at 570, 125 S.Ct. 1183).  Roper and Graham emphasized that the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes.

Children are different. Let’s continue to treat them that way.

 

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  1. Pingback: Clarifying the problems with mandatory-minimums: why it’s okay to let them go | a public defender

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