The Practice of Trying Kids as if They Were Adults Has Become One of the Most Destructive Characteristics of our Justice System
By itself, the practice of subjecting kids, who by definition are still developing, to the relative permanence of adult penalties in adult institutions is a ruinous and heinous practice. To make matters worse, though, trying a kid in adult court virtually guarantees that the young person will end up in a destructive adult correctional institution one way or another.
In irreversible ways the vulnerability of kids is exploited when kids are tried and sentenced as if they were adults. There is, however, an incentive for some to do so. It leads to greater success for those who operate the system. Like a ''twofer'' for hard-line prosecutors, not only is a kid made eligible for the harshest of judgements when he or she is sent to adult court for adjudication, the prosecution is delivered an intrinsically weaker adversary who has not attained levels of development or maturity that are in any measure comparable to those of everyone else in adult court.
Kids that are tried as adults do not change into adults just because they are in adult court versus juvenile court. On the other hand, the world around them most certainly does change. Adult criminal court is, by definition, an ''adversarial proceeding.'' Suddenly the kid who couldn't handle his life before he ended up in adult court is facing off against a fully functioning, professional, highly educated, and experienced adult who wants nothing more than to hammer him as hard as he can. And more often than not, the judge presiding over the trial has a condemnation bias, as well.
In a system where prosecutors and judges are rewarded and revered for their record of hammering offenders, it makes perfect albeit dishonorable sense to go up against a defendant who is less capable because of naturally incomplete development. District Attorneys and judges do not win elections by promising a measured, proportional and humane approach to crime. In effect, prosecutors have every incentive to get kids into adult court. That is where the prosecutor has a distinct advantage. That is where the greater penalties are. Therefore, that is where the glory is.
In a better world, prosecutors would not be chasing glory. ''...From an idealistic standpoint, the decision to prosecute a case is grounded in the concept of justice. In Burger v. United States, the following noble concept was expressed: ''The United States Attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.''
But, we are not in a better world. We are in this one, where justice is defined too often by who wins and who loses. A district attorney makes his living and keeps his job by winning cases: ''...the prosecutor is often guided by political realities or ambitions... The numbers of cases prosecuted, with particular attention to conviction rates, are the staples of re-election campaigns for prosecutors.''
''This is crazy!'' I said to Rovsky. I was quite sure that if things went badly a trial in adult court meant that Nathan would be eligible for ''adult punishment.'' And, I was right. Rovsky agreed that it was crazy.
There is no use in trying, said Alice; one cannot believe in impossible things. I dare say you haven't had much practice, said the Queen.
The kid who is transferred to adult court ''officially'' and only ''officially'' ceases to be a kid. In all of our culture, the only place that such alchemy occurs is in the criminal justice system. When it does, irreducible advantages for the prosecution and devastating disadvantages for kids are secured. A fixed game.
Stupid me, I just assumed that Nathan would be dealt with as a juvenile. It seemed obvious: he was only seventeen. Isn't that a juvenile? What's more no one had been hurt during the crime. I thought that a system putatively built on the concept of a ''fair trial'' should prevent a practice that guarantees that an entire class of defendants (juveniles) will be placed into situations for which they are developmentally unequipped and distinctly disadvantaged.
Sadly, moving kids into adult court is a common occurrence that has been becoming more common. For example, according to the laalmanac.com, out of 30,000 juvenile cases filed in Los Angeles County each year, around 27%, or 8,100 qualify as serious felonies. Of that group, 80% are determined to be ''unfit'' to be tried in Juvenile Court. That means nearly 6,500 kids are tried as adults in Los Angeles County each year. Extrapolate that number out over the entire U.S. population and you arrive at a heck of a number of kids per year who are dealt with in the adult system.
These days, every state in the union has some process or mechanism for transferring a kid to adult court. Some use something called legislative exclusion, in which legislation identifies crimes that must be tried in adult court, regardless of the age of the offender. Others employ something called prosecutorial discretion. In those cases, the prosecutor decides where a kid will be adjudicated. And others have mechanisms of ''waiver'' or ''referral,'' in which a kid's status - juvenile defendant or adult defendant - is determined from a set of criteria. California has a kind of hybrid in which some crimes are automatic adult court issues and others are put through a process. It was this process that the juvenile court used to send Nathan up to adult criminal court, where life sentences can be delivered....
Man's inhumanity to man...Makes countless thousands mourn!
A still developing kid who has been slammed into the adult prison system is at far greater danger of sustaining profound and irreversible damage by the heavy penalties and general environment of adult prison terms than fully developed adults. For that reason, experts in the field of criminology assert that transfer to adult criminal court should be avoided whenever possible.
In adult prison, youths are more likely to spend much of their time learning ''tricks of the trade'' from experienced offenders. That certainly does not bode well for reducing rates of recidivism. Of course, the system could not care less about deleterious consequences. That goes double for those kids who will not see life outside the walls again.
Beyond learning how to be more capable criminals, the very worst qualities of man are often developed and validated in prisons. The strong prey on the weak, as domination, exploitation, violent retaliation, etc. are the norms. Whether guard or prisoner, those who are the most effective at such behavior occupy positions of respect and power.
Obviously, youths in adult prisons are among the weakest and most likely to suffer in such a predatory environment. Kids sentenced to adult prison are routinely assaulted and witness other assaults, by other prisoners and by guards.
We think or delude ourselves into believing that our society cares for young people and looks out for them, that we are forgiving and understanding when they run astray. The difference between reality and our self-delusion is profound. Earlier I noted that youths who are tried and convicted as adults are generally sentenced more harshly. We personally experienced that phenomenon.
Virtually, every day the papers report penalties for adults who have committed more heinous crimes but received sentences less severe than Nathan's. Here are just a few examples:
- Man gets 25 to life for throwing bride off cliff (Los Angeles, February 11, 2010) - This guy is going to be eligible for parole 30+ years before Nathan's first date with a parole board.
- Man sentenced to 25 year to life for County murder (Ventura County, 07/20/2011) - This guy was 40 at the time of the murder. He will be eligible for parole more than 30 years earlier than Nathan.
- SoCal woman gets 36 years to life for stabbing neighbors (LA County, 01/13/2011) - In this case, the woman murdered her neighbor and stabbed three of the victim's relatives. She was 26 at the time. She will be eligible for parole nearly 20 years before Nathan.
- Man gets 30-year prison term for 2 killings. (Los Angeles, 12/30/2010) - Roberto Rendon was 32 when he killed the two people. His first shot at parole will come nearly 30 years before Nathan's.
- Actor sentenced to life in prison for stabbing ex-girlfriend (Los Angeles, 12/16/2010) - Actually, this guy received a 12 years to life sentence, which means he will be eligible for parole in just over 10 years.
- Defendant gets 28 years to life for killing boyhood friend (Ventura County, 12/09/2010) - This 28-years to life sentence is for a first-degree murder conviction of a 31 year old man. His first chance at parole will be in about 25 years.
- A 54-year old man who stomped a homeless woman to death in Los Angeles received a 15-year to life term (03/28/2008). A 26-year old man who set another person on fire in Oxnard was sentenced to five years in prison (02/14/2008).
- In May of 2009, Phil Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life - You might recall that Phil Spector was convicted of shooting an actress in the face, killing her in his house. He will be eligible for parole after 16 years.
Judge Eaton's goal was to guarantee that the boy who was in his courtroom will not leave prison alive, whereas so many adult offenders whose crimes are clearly more devastating than Nathan's will very likely walk free again, even after murdering someone.
And Nathan is not the only kid who received a sentence that exceeds those handed down to adults. At about the same time he was sentenced, a group of other kids were being hammered into oblivion, as well. A sixteen-year old kid was sentenced to eighty-four years to life for car-jacking, robbery and other charges. A fourteen-year old originally received a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole for a kidnap for ransom conviction. Another sixteen-year old was sentenced to 110 years to life for three attempted murders when he randomly fired a gun at a gathering of gang members. And another minor was looking at 120 years to life for three attempted murder charges.
These young men were bad actors to be sure, not worse, though, than the collection above of adults. In fact, in the cases I cited, the adults actually killed someone, whereas none of the kids did. Nevertheless, the sentences for the kids who were sent up to adult court are three to four times more severe.