Monday, October 11, 2010

Should Juveniles be Tried as Adults?

The Tennessean recently explored the use of adult penalties for crimes committed by juveniles. Children who kill are a particular concern. In Pennsylvania, there are more inmates serving life without parole for crime committed as juveniles than any other state.

In Lawrence County, a young man is being held for a murder committed at age 11. The Superior Court is considering an appeal requesting the case be remanded to juvenile court.

Experts say the most effective rehabilitation for young criminals comes in a juvenile detention center. At a detention center impressionable children are counseled in a positive environment with one-on-one attention from adult role models. In adult prison, the emphasis is on punishment. More vocational and academic programs have been added, but not every young adult prisoner takes advantage of them.

"They don't do well in prison," said William Bernet,professor of forensic psychiatry at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. He told The Tennessean, grouping teenagers with hardened convicts just doesn't make sense. "They pick up more criminal habits. They identify with the criminal way of life."

Nationally, 10 percent of all murders are committed by juveniles, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That's about 1,043 murders a year.

Violence toward others peaks in adolescent years, Peter Ash of Emory University told The Tennessean.

The good news here is that a violent adolescent doesn't necessarily become a violent adult. Some two-thirds to three-quarters of violent youths grow out of it and become more self-controlled, he said. This, coupled with the efforts to rehabilitate in the
juvenile justice system, is why some say trying children as adults is no benefit to society.

Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, helped draft an American Psychological Association brief for a 2005 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed before age 18. Although, the Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles in Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)the court did not rely directly on the Professor Steinberg's research concerning juvenile brain development. The research was noted in a footnote. The Court relied on a national consensus that had developed against the death penalty being applied to juveniles. Thirty-five states had banned the death penalty for juveniles prior to the Court's decision.

"I don't think it's ever appropriate to try young kids as adults," Steinberg told The Tennessean. "I think that below 15, I would feel uncomfortable regardless of what they've done."

Obviously, not everyone in Pennsylvania shares Professor's Steinberg's sentiments.

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