Friday, March 11, 2011

Budget Shortfalls and Juveniles Charged as Adults

While tough-on-crime laws from the 1980s and ’90s automatically sent many 16- and 17-year-old defendants to adult courts for trial, the trend today seems to be going in the other direction, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

In the past four years, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Illinois, and Mississippi have passed laws that now refer certain 16- and 17-year-old defendants to juvenile courts; instead of automatically sending them to adult courts. This year, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and North Carolina may also reverse course.

Two rulings by the Supreme Court support these conclusions. In 2005, the Court overturned the death penalty for youths under 18. Last year, it banned life-without-parole for those under 18 who are convicted of crimes short of murder, according to the Christian Science Monitor. In both cases, the justices recognized “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote last year.

Studies show that youths are less able to control their impulses, to consider consequences, and assess risk than adults. Research also shows the negative fallout – for society and for offenders – of putting minors through the adult legal system.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, youths in adult facilities, for instance, can experience more physical abuse and suicide than those in the juvenile system. Higher percentages of minors tried as adults also commit repeat offenses – and more violent ones – than for comparable youths who go through juvenile courts. That’s because the juvenile system offers more support and rehabilitation services. And juvenile court records are sealed, giving an ex-offender a better chance to get a job once outside the system.

Most states are facing budget shortfalls that will change the dynamics in terms of youthful offenders. Many policy makers who have succeeded by being ‘tough on crime’ now face the reality of having to rethink their crime policy with fewer resources. That has meant early release for some adult prisoners as a means of saving correction costs. It may also means less likelihood of getting arrested because of fewer police officers after layoffs to save money.

What will it mean for juveniles charged as adults? Sometimes the cost of juvenile placement and treatment can be more costly than adult incarceration. Will the budget squeeze work against juveniles. Will policy makers be less likely to change the way juveniles are treated because adult incarceration is cheaper than juvenile placement?

It will be interesting to see if the movement in a few states in adopted across the board.

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