If society is intent on trying children as adults and sentencing them to adult prisons, we at least should make sure the get-tough measures do what they are intended to do. But the preponderance of evidence suggests they don't.
During an ex-plosion of violent crime among young people in the late 1980s and early '90s, most states rushed to make it easier to transfer juveniles into the adult court system where they often received harsher sentences, sometimes life without parole. The motto at the time was "adult crime, adult time."
But now, with juvenile crime rates dropping, many states are re-evaluating the harsh attitudes toward teen criminals. Those who are pushing for new approaches to juvenile crime are motivated by both compassion and common sense.
New research shows that sending teens to adult criminal court doesn't work. The teens that are tried as adults end up worse off than those who are tried as juveniles. They get into trouble earlier and more often, and their offenses often are more serious.
Researchers also have found, not surprisingly, that the adolescent brain is not like an adult brain. The part of the brain that moderates behavior is less developed than an adult brain, making a juvenile more susceptible to rash actions. Juveniles also are more affected by peer pressure, making them more likely to engage in bad behavior if part of a violence-prone group such as a gang.
But the same research shows that juvenile brains are more malleable and that young offenders are more likely to show remorse for their crimes later, which enhances the ability to rehabilitate them. There are, after all, reasons for setting the conventional legal age at 18 or older.
The movement toward a new approach to young offenders is not simply a matter of taking pity on children. It is a sensible response to changing knowledge about adolescent development. If we take vulnerable children and throw them into a violent prison environment, the results are predictable.
It makes no sense to try children as adults and send them to adult prisons if all it does is turn them into hardened criminals. Instead, authorities should be seeking ways to rehabilitate young criminals and give them a second chance -- perhaps even before we send them to jail.
Some still champion the idea of hard time in adult facilities for young offenders. They argue that the first priority is protecting the public.
And some states have taken a middle-of-the-road approach in which two sentences can be given simultaneously: one, a juvenile sentence, the other, a harsher one. If the teen follows the terms of the juvenile sentence, the adult sentence is revoked.
But the trend nationwide now is toward keeping juveniles out of the adult criminal system. Instead, states are seeking ways to provide more health and community-based services, improving conditions at detention centers and encouraging young offenders to get an education.
The trend is a welcome one. Our prisons are overcrowded with adult offenders already.
The focus should be on preventing young criminals from becoming worse adult criminals. That isn't just the compassionate response; it also is what works.
More and more states are looking at ways to rehabilitate juvenile offenders rather than sending them to prison.
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