In January, 14-year-old Lionel Tate was convicted of murdering a 6-year-old girl. He claimed the girl died when he was practicing wrestling moves he had seen on television. Now Lionel faces life in an adult prison, without parole, because though he is only 14, he was tried as an adult.
Until recently in this country the belief had been that juveniles could be rehabilitated, and so shouldn't be locked up with adult sex offenders and murderers. But in a trend reported recently in The New York Times Magazine, the number of juveniles in adult prisons has doubled in the last 10 years.
There is no doubt many violent, repeat offenders deserve to be there. But are too many troubled kids being swept up in the dragnet- serving adult time? Scott Pelley reports.
Jeff Stackhouse was only 14 when he was arrested, but he was declared an adult by the Arizona criminal justice system. He was being held in a county jail for pointing an unloaded shotgun at some kids who were beating him up. For that, he faced a 30-year sentence.
Jeff lived in a Phoenix jail for nine months. He was housed with inmates 18 and under but even there he's had a hard time defending himself. So he asked to be moved into protective custody.
"(In the general population) I'd be fighting all day long," Jeff says. "Just trying to keep my roommate off my stuff, And most of the people in here, theyre a lot bigger than I am. So I wouldn't really do very good."
Jeff has had a history of emotional and psychological problems. When he turned 14, he started getting in trouble with the law. He was arrested for stealing change from unlocked cars. He stole a bicycle. And then during an argument, he got physical with his mother.
His mother says that he pushed her during an argument. She says she did not fall down, nor did she suffer any injuries. Still, his mother could no longer control Jeff and she couldn't afford the mental health care she felt he needed, so she called the police, hoping the juvenile justice system would put him in treatment. She says she was desperate.
Jeff was evaluated by Arizona's juvenile justice system. A doctor found that he was developing an antisocial personality. The doctor recommended Jeff be placed in a mental health facility, but there was no money for that, so instead they sent him home. Not long after, he got into that fight with his classmates.
The police report of the incident says one of the boys had Jeff on the ground and was kicking him. Jeff freed himself, ran into his own home, and picked up an unloaded antique shotgun. He pointed it at the boys and told them to leave. That was the end of it.
Even though Jeff was 14, prosecutor Richard Romley charged him as an adult. "The juvenile system failed him here," says Romley. "It failed him, because he continued to increase his deviant behavior to where he eventually he pulled shotgun on individuals."
After his fight with his classmaes, Jeff was charged with three counts of aggravated assault. Romley also charged him with three counts of dangerous crimes against children - a law designed to put child predators away for a good long time.
Days after being interviewed by Pelley, Romley dropped the dangerous crimes against children charge - but not the assault charge. "In the end I have an obligation to protect the community," Romley said.
Jeff Stackhouse decided to plead guilty to the assault charge. Now he has that felony on his record. After so much attention focused on his case, he was moved to a mental health facility, where he will be held for several months. Still, the experience of nine months in the adult system may remain with him for a very long time.
It used to be the obligation of a judge to decide whether to transfer a juvenile into the adult court system. That is changing. In 15 states, a prosecutor can make that decision. One of those states is Florida. No one has more experience with juvenile crime in Florida than William Gladstone, a senior juvenile judge and the former chief of the juvenile court in Miami.
Gladstone blames the new trend in juvenile justice on what he calls hysteria whipped up by politicians after high profile juvenile crimes, such as the shootings at Columbine and Jonesboro.
According to Gladstone, public safety suffers when juveniles end up in adult prisons. "Instead of treating them. we put them into prisons where, of course, we make them worse and more dangerous to you and me," he says.
Jessica Robinson was locked up with adults - as a 7th grader. She's as good an example as any of what happens to an adolescent in maximum security. She was arrested at 13. A psychologist said she needed role models and she got them - in prison.
While behind bars, she became part of a "family" which consisted of other prisoners. Her prison "mother" was serving time for murder.
Jessica's real mother has visited only once. Life at home was always troubled for them. Jessica had a juvenile rap sheet for biting her mother. A doctor in the juvenile system said she had severe symptoms of conduct disorder. He wanted to send her to a mental health facility but instead they sent her home. Soon after, Jessica and some friends tried to rob a stranger. Then they robbed her grandparents at knifepoint. One of the friends cut her grandfather's hand and face. The injuries weren't serious but Jessica is serving nine years. Now 17 years old, she has five years to go.
She says she loves her prison family: "I'm not saying it's the best influence in the world.. But like I said before, that's all I have. That's all the family I have right now, the ones that I turn to, the ones that I can talk to, the ones that I can depend on when I need something. You know what I'm saying? When I need somebody to talk to they're the only ones I have."
Jessica's lawyer, Paolo Annino, has been trying to get her transferred into te juvenile system where she can get mental health care. He says that when Jessica is released in 2005, she will have no skills.
"They're gonna come back to your neighborhood and my neighborhood a lot more dangerous than they went in. And they are gonna come back," Gladstone says of these juvenile prisoners.
Phoenix prosecutor Romley agrees. He says many counties are taking the easy way out - dumping kids in adult prisons rather than spending money on juvenile rehabilitation.
The United States Surgeon General reported in January that juveniles transferred to adult court are not only more likely to commit crimes when they get out, but to commit more serious crimes as well.
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