Home / Juvenile Offenders

States Rethinking Harsh Juvenile Crime Laws

One size fits all justice never works. States that in the past enacted tough laws charging juveniles as adults and in many cases throwing them in prison for life without a key are now rethinking these laws.

They're responding to new research on the adolescent brain, and studies that indicate teens sent to adult court end up worse off than those who are not: They get in trouble more often, they do it faster and the offenses are more serious.

"It's really the trifecta of bad criminal justice policy," says Shay Bilchik, a former Florida prosecutor who heads the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University. "People didn't know that at the time the changes were made. Now we do, and we have to learn from it."

States considering changes: Colorado, Connecticut, California, Michigan, Illinois. The article is filled with details.

America can't jail itself out of its juvenile crime problem. We can't keep putting law enforcement and punishment over prevention.

The expertise of the family court and the juvenile court system serves a vital function in our society. As I wrote back in 1998 when Congress was considering some ill-advised juvenile crime legislation:

The value of prevention over the pure "lock-em-up" mentality was shown by a Rand Corporation projection: While a $1 million investment in new prisons would prevent 60 serious crimes a year, the same $1 million, if invested in parent training, could prevent 160 serious crimes a year. And if the same amount were spent on graduation incentives for disadvantaged students, there might be 258 fewer serious crimes a year.
It's time to get smarter, not tougher about crime.

(4 comments) Permalink :: Comments

Genarlow Wilson Freed From Ten Year Sentence

If you believe in justice, the best news you are likely to hear today is this:

The Georgia Supreme Court on Friday ordered the release of Genarlow Wilson, the Douglas County teenager who has been serving a controversial 10-year sentence for consensual oral sex. The court's 4-3 decision upholds a Monroe County judge's ruling that the sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment under both the Georgia and U.S. constitutions.
Wilson was caught in a bind because he was sentenced under a law (later changed) that imposed a ten year mandatory minimum for having consensual oral sex with a minor, even though she was only two years younger than Wilson, who was 17 at the time. Wilson's ordeal is chronicled in these TalkLeft posts.

The Georgia Supremes made the decision bullet-proof by concluding that the sentence was cruel and unusual under the Georgia Constitution. Even if Georgia were to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the federal constitutional holding, the independent state constitutional holding will continue to protect Wilson.

Wilson should be released from prison soon. He will presumably need to be resentenced, but the court will no longer be bound by the 10 year mandatory minimum, and should be guided by the Georgia legislature's recent determination that the crime shouldn't be punished by more than a year in jail -- a sentence that Wilson has finished serving.

Update: (TL): The court's opinion is here (pdf.)

(30 comments) Permalink :: Comments

Florida Boot Camp Guards Acquitted in Teen's Death

Unbelievable. The guards at the Florida boot camp have been acquitted in charges arising from the death of Martin Lee Anderson. (Background here and here.)

[A] video showed the boy was kicked and hit repeatedly by guards.....A second autopsy found the boy died of suffocation because his mouth was blocked and he was forced to inhale ammonia smelling salts, which resulted in a blockage of his airway. The medical examiner said he died as a result of the "actions of the guards."

Here's what's been happening at teen boot camps.

(10 comments) Permalink :: Comments

Torture and Starvation at Juvenile Boot Camps

I wrote about the new GAO report (pdf)on juvenile boot camp deaths, but this Times (London) article is really a must read.

Selected quotes:

The Government Accountability Office, the US Congress investigative arm, identified 1,619 incidents of child abuse in 33 states in 2005. It selected ten deaths since 1990 for special investigation in boot camps and “wilderness programmes”.

What they found:

Examples of abuse include youths being forced to eat their own vomit, denied adequate food, being forced to lie in urine or faeces, being kicked, beaten and thrown to the ground,” Gregory Kutz, a GAO investigator, told a congressional committee.

One teenager, Mr Kutz said, was “forced to use a toothbrush to clean a toilet, then forced to use that toothbrush on their own teeth”. The abuse that preceded the deaths of the ten teenagers was particularly shocking. “If you walked in partway through my presentation you might have assumed I was talking about human rights violations in a Third World country,” Mr Kutz said.


(10 comments, 809 words in story) There's More :: Permalink :: Comments

GAO Report on Teen Abuse at Boot Camps

Update: The GAO report is here (pdf). Committee Chairman Miller's opening statement at today's hearing is here.


The GAO has completed its report on abuse at teen "boot camps." It's not a pretty picture.

The first federal inquiry into boot camps and wilderness programs for troubled teens cataloged 1,619 incidents of abuse in 33 states in 2005, a congressional investigation out today reveals.

The study, by the Government Accountability Office, also looked at a sample of 10 deaths since 1990 and found untrained staff, inadequate food or reckless operations were factors. In half of those cases, the teens died of dehydration or heat exhaustion, the GAO says.

A few of the problems: A lack of regulations for the programs and no central clearinghouse for reporting abuse complaints. A Congressional hearing on "Cases of Child Neglect and Abuse at Private Residential Treatment Facilities" is being held this morning by the House Committee on Education and Labor.


(2 comments, 252 words in story) There's More :: Permalink :: Comments

Two Sad Tales of Juvenile Girls, One White, One Black

If I were currently raising a teen, the last place I'd live is Texas.

Read this sad tale. While the article breaks it down along racial lines, the truth is that Texas is over-incarcerating its youth with disastrous consequences.

Grits for Breakfast has been following this and other stories of abuse at the Texas Youth Prisons.

(1 comment) Permalink :: Comments

Police Pepper Spray Teen Over Curfew Violation

Until I watched the video, I thought maybe there wasn't much to complain about with this story.

A 15-year-old girl is facing a felony battery charge from a curfew violation incident in which a city police officer struck and pepper sprayed her after she bit him — actions shown in a police videotape released Thursday. Fort Pierce Police Chief Sean Baldwin said he stands by how Officer Dan Gilroy handled the July arrest.

The video changed my mind. I come down on the girl's side. First off, why arrest teens on curfew violations? Why not just give them a citation?

Even if arrest is warranted for a curfew violation, handcuffing a teen in back is unnecessary force. It's painful. They are children. Surely he could have cuffed her in front. She's screaming in pain and then he slams her face into the car hood. It's not until afterwards that she finally bites his hand (which is protected by a glove.) Then he hits her and sprays the pepper spray directly in her eyes.


(162 comments, 284 words in story) There's More :: Permalink :: Comments

Britain's Ministry of Justice Defends Trying Juveniles as Adults

Barristers in Britain are criticizing the country's policy of trying juveniles as adults for serious crimes. In response, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice had this to say:

"When a person under 18 is tried at a Crown Court, special provisions are made to make the proceedings less intimidating. For example, gowns and wigs are not worn, frequent breaks are taken and the defendant is allowed to have a parent in the dock with them."

In a recent murder trial in which five young boys were convicted of killing the father of one of them during a cricket game, the Judge complained during the trial:


(3 comments, 269 words in story) There's More :: Permalink :: Comments

Debunking Juvenile Sex Offender Myths

The New York Times Magazine today focuses on juvenile sex offenders, asking where is the line that divides a kid between being a sex offender and merely having boundary issues -- and questioning the wisdom of lifetime community notification laws for juveniles convicted of sex offenses.

It's a ten page feature article, but here are some highlights:

Community notification makes people feel protected — who wouldn’t want to know if a sex offender lives next door? But studies have yet to prove that the law does, in fact, improve public safety. Meanwhile, when applied to youths, the laws undercut a central tenet of the juvenile justice system. Since juvenile courts were created more than 100 years ago, youths’ records have, with exceptions in some states, been sealed and kept out of the public’s hands. The theory is that children are less responsible for their actions, and thus less blameworthy, than adults and more amenable to rehabilitation. But by publishing their photographs and addresses on the Internet, community notification suggests that juveniles with sex offenses are in a separate, distinct category from other adolescents in the juvenile justice system — more fixed in their traits and more dangerous to the public. It suggests, in other words, that they are more like adult sex offenders than they are like kids.


(9 comments, 1055 words in story) There's More :: Permalink :: Comments

Action Alert: Oppose S. 456, Feinstein's Gang Legislation Bill

The time is now to send your Senators a letter opposing Sen. Diane Feinstein's gang legislation bill, S. 456, the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2007. It will hurt our kids.

Primary objections are:

  • this legislation defines "gangs" and "gang crime" so broadly that it will drastically increase the number of children and youth who are inappropriately swept into the juvenile justice system -- especially poor children and children of color;
  • this legislation places an extremely heavy emphasis on incarceration and punishment, and fails to support what we know really works to reduce recidivism: prevention and intervention; and
  • this legislation unfairly and inappropriately targets undocumented individuals.

Republican Senators Orrin Hatch and Elizabeth Dole are co-sponsors of the bill, that should tell you something.

Background on the bill and its predecessor is here and here.


(4 comments, 319 words in story) There's More :: Permalink :: Comments

Praise for Connecticut's Juvenile Offender Bill

The New York Times today praises the bill passed this week by the Connecticut Senate that keeps juvenile offenders in juvenile rather than adult court.

The issue:

Connecticut is one of only three states — along with New York and North Carolina — that automatically try 16-year-olds as adults. Embarrassed by that fact, last year state lawmakers in Connecticut established a commission that was instructed to bring the state’s correction laws into line with humane and sensible practices.

The Times:

This bill is the welcome result. It is also backed by a substantial body of research showing that children who are processed through adult courts and who do time in adult jails fare worse in life — and commit much more violent crime — than children handled in juvenile courts. Once saddled with adult convictions, these young offenders are typically barred from all kinds of jobs and confined to the very margins of society.

The new legislation, which calls for juveniles to be closely supervised and provided with extensive mental health, educational and re-entry services, will cost Connecticut more money initially. But the law would more than pay for itself by cutting down on recidivism and by giving troubled young people a real chance to become productive, law-abiding adults.

40 states allow for some juveniles to be charged and sentenced as adults. Some are revising the policy. All of them should.

(1 comment) Permalink :: Comments

Juvenile Inmates in TX Served Improperly Extended Sentences

Here's one more reason to shake your head in disgust at the beleaguered Texas Youth Commission:

The agency that runs Texas' juvenile prison system said it will release 226 inmates after a review found their sentences were improperly extended. Advocates for Texas Youth Commission inmates and their families have complained that sentences are often extended inconsistently or in retaliation for filing grievances.

Jay Kimbrough, who is heading an investigation into allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the agency's facilities, formed a panel to review the records of nearly all inmates with extended sentences. The six-member panel, which included community activists and prosecutors, reviewed the cases of 1,027 inmates.

(2 comments) Permalink :: Comments

An Event for The Young and Incarcerated

Here's a group and event that deserves some notice:

Hear Us Out
Wednesday, May 16, 2007 @ 7:00 PM
The Thurgood Marshall Center*
1816 12th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009

Hear Us Out will feature the writings of 16 and 17-year olds who have been charged and incarcerated as adults in the DC Jail. Poems will be read by Free Minds members who have been released and are now living and working in the DC community. Come celebrate their successes at this free community event!

Though I am behind these bars I'll start my life anew
Despite these walls around me
My sun will still shine through
by Leon, age 17, "Sunshine"
You are invited to bring a new or used paperback book for the DC Jail's new lending library. Invite your friends. Light refreshments will be served.
The event is sponsored by the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop:


(11 comments, 269 words in story) There's More :: Permalink :: Comments

Six Years For a Shove

Shaquandra Cotton, 15, shoved a teacher's aide. She claimed that the aide pushed her first, but a jury evidently believed the aide, and Shaquandra was convicted of a felony. Despite the absence of any serious injury, a Texas judge sentenced Shaquandra to remain in the Ron Jackson Correctional Complex, about 300 miles from her home, "until she meets state rehabilitation standards or reaches her 21st birthday."

Six years for a shove? How ridiculous. Even a day in the Ron Jackson Correctional Complex would be excessive.

The facility is part of an embattled juvenile system that is the subject of state and federal investigations into allegations that staff members physically and sexually abused inmates.

The case raises serious questions about the impact of race on juvenile sentences.

Creola Cotton, Shaquandra's mother, and activists argue that while [Judge] Superville sent Shaquandra to the state's juvenile prison system, he gave a white 14-year-old arsonist probation.

(22 comments) Permalink :: Comments

County Pays For Boot Camp Deaths

As TalkLeft noted here, the State of Florida agreed to pay $5 million to the family of Martin Anderson, who was beaten to death in a boot camp for juvenile offenders. The family's attorney announced yesterday that Bay County will pay an additional $2.4 million to settle claims against the Sheriff's Office, which operated the boot camp.

(1 comment) Permalink :: Comments

<< Previous 15 Next 15 >>