Sentencing Youth as Adults Harms Us All

The title of this post is the title of my op-ed, published today at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.  This is how it begins:

On August 15, 2012, when most teenagers were enjoying the last few weeks of summer vacation, 16-year-old Fernando Garibay-Benitez was shot in the head outside an apartment complex on Rolling Green Court in Raleigh, N.C. A rising sophomore at Millbrook High School who played soccer, Fernando was dead when police arrived.

By the end of the next day, a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old had been arrested in connection with the shooting. Their names have not been released, because state law requires that juvenile court records be withheld from the public absent a court order. The juveniles have been charged with first-degree murder. If the state demonstrates at the next hearing that there is “probable cause” or a reasonable ground to suspect that the youths committed the crime, they will be tried automatically as adults in state superior court. Consistent with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, if convicted they will face sentences of either life without parole or life with the possibility of parole after 25 years imprisonment.

It has not always been possible for kids as young as 13 to be prosecuted as adults in North Carolina, but a single case two decades ago brought about a change in the law.

When 13-year-old Gregory Gibson brutally murdered an elderly widow in 1992, he was given the harshest penalty available at the time: commitment to juvenile prison (formally known as “training school” or “youth development center”) until his 18th birthday. As a result of public outcry over the state’s inability to try Gibson as an adult, the Legislature subsequently lowered the minimum age of transfer to 13.

North Carolina is not alone in its ability to try very young teens in adult criminal court. In fact, more than 30 states allow for this type of “transfer” to occur at age 13 or younger, with approximately 20 states not imposing any age restriction at all for certain offenses.

Although there have been a number of promising reforms over the past five years in which states have amended their laws to keep more young offenders in the juvenile system, an estimated 250,000 youth under 18 are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system each year. Yet, research shows that the consequences of an adult conviction are serious, long-lasting, and potentially life-threatening for young offenders and that laws allowing such prosecutions are ineffective at deterring crime and reducing recidivism.

The question remains: Why do most states continue to prosecute, try, sentence, and incarcerate juveniles as though they were adults?

After reading an online article about the recent Raleigh shooting, I scanned the comments.  Most were extremely hostile toward the young defendants, expressing a variation of the following: “You do the crime, you do the time,” “Even seven-year-olds know that murder is wrong,” and “Their mothers are to blame.” A few readers even demanded: “Fry them.”

My initial reaction was cerebral. We can’t “fry them,” I thought, because the U.S. Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons held that capital punishment for juvenile offenders violates the Eighth Amendment. Adolescents may “know” something is wrong, but they are impulsive, vulnerable to peer pressure, and unable to appreciate the consequences of their actions; as a result, they make bad decisions that can end in tragedy. If mothers are to blame, what about fathers, teachers, and neighbors? Besides, what is the point of blaming anyone for the actions of an adolescent? Don’t we all share responsibility when something like this occurs?

Soon enough, however, my rational response devolved into frustration and despair at the insensitivity and ignorance expressed in the comments. Why do we demonize young offenders? Why do we persist in treating them as “other”? Why is it that Norway sentences Anders Behring Breivik, a 33-year-old who admitted killing 77 people in a shooting massacre last year, to 21 years in prison, while the United States incarcerates people for 50, 60 and 70 years for crimes committed when they were teenagers?

You may read the rest here.

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About Tamar Birckhead

School of Law
This entry was posted in Adult Court, Analysis, Juveniles, Sentencing, State Laws. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sentencing Youth as Adults Harms Us All

  1. Vicki Henry says:

    Most youth behavior that is categorized as a sex crime is activity that
    mental health professionals do not deem as predatory. (JUSTICE POLICY
    INSTITUTE, P23)

    There was a 2006 study of 300 boys on the sex offense registry in Texas. They were under the age of 18 at the time of their first sex offense charge. The study found that 4.3% was rearrested as an adult for another sex offense. (JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE, P 22)

    More than nine out of 10 times the arrest of a youth for a sex offense is a
    onetime event. (JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE, P 22)

    Youth who are labeled “sex offenders” often experience rejection from
    peer groups, adults and the church. They are more likely to associate with
    delinquent or troubled peers. Youth may be more likely to engage in illegal
    behavior and re-offend. (JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE, P 24)

    Food for thought.

    Vicki Henry
    Women Against Registry dot com

  2. Sallt says:

    I don’t agree with sentencing the youth as adults. There are better ways to punish a teenager, like sending them to http://www.redcliffascent.com/.