18. California Convicts and Punishes Teenagers as Adults

by Project Censored
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Source: THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN, January 27, 1999, Title: “The Lost Boys: California is Trying Kids as Adults-and Locking Them Up for Life. No One Knows How Many, “ Author: A. Clay Thompson

Faculty Evaluator: Peter Duffy
Student Researchers: Jeremiah Price & Michael Spigel

In California, minors as young as 14 are being pushed into the adult criminal justice system. As a result children face adult punishments sometimes as severe as life in prison.

Los Angeles County juvenile district attorney Tom Higgins ships more than 600 children into the adult system every year. Higgins states, “The highest violence potential is for people between the ages of 16 and 31. If we have incar-cerated a large part of the population for that part of their lives, we have probably made a significant impact on crimes.” Justifying these numbers, Higgins claims that “There is a lack of judgment, maturity, reflection in a youth. There is a failure to appreciate consequence, an aura of invincibility.”

A fitness hearing trial is used in California to determine whether a minor should be tried as an adult. Paul S. D. Berg, Ph.D., a forensic pathologist who has testified in dozens of fitness hearings states: “The only cases that end up in these hearings are serious cases, so the criterion is met by definition.” Though the state does not keep track of how many of their youths go from fitness hearings to adult court, research into prosecution patterns in seven counties reveal that between 80 and 90 percent of juvenile suspects given a fitness hearing do, in fact, end up in adult court. Once these kids end up in adult court, there is little to no tracking process to follow up on results. The state of California has no idea how many teenagers are being sentenced to life in prison.

Section 707 of the penal code was revamped in 1994 by the then-state assembly members Steve Peace (D-El Cajon) and Chuck Quackenbush (R-San Jose) who were using 707 to attract tough-on-crime votes. Section 707 makes it easier to try teens accused of serious offenses in the adult system. While the lock-kids-up-for-life policy may have sounded like a good idea to many voters sick of violent crime, criminologists say it has no crime-fighting value, and punishes kids who really didn’t understand the consequences of their actions.

In 1996, Eric Lotke of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives and Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute studied the effect of transferring juveniles to adult court. “The data shows that states with higher transfer rates do not have lower homicide rates,” their report stated. “Connecticut has the highest transfer rate in the nation, and it has the same youth homicide rate as Colorado, whose transfer rate is nearly zero. Michigan and Massachusetts have nearly the same transfer rates, but their youth homicide rates are among the highest and lowest, respectively.”

Professor Thomas Grisso, a leading researcher in developmental psychology and director of forensic training and research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says you don’t have to be a developmental psychologist to recognize the difference between a 14 year-old and a 24-year-old. “As a parent, imagine your 14-year-old approaching you and saying, ‘Dad, I want to get married.’ The parent will probably reply with something like, ‘They just aren’t ready to take responsibility,’ or ‘They just aren’t able yet to see all the consequences of the choices they might make.’ That parent is right. Developmental psychologists will tell you that while 14-year-olds on average are capable of considering future consequences, they simply aren’t accustomed yet to doing it.”

UPDATE FROM AUTHOR A. CLAY THOMPSON: Fueled by a youth-phobic media, politicians at all levels are busy dismembering America’s century-old juvenile justice system. With little discussion, more than 40 states in the past decade have passed laws making it easier to cast kids into adult courts and prisons.

“The Lost Boys” is a look at California’s juvenile justice rollback—a process that began in earnest in 1994 and is blazing on as I write. Working on the story I was startled by how little information is collected on the kids who are being treated as adults by the courts. Nobody knows how many kids are being shipped to the criminal big leagues, what kind of sentences they’re getting, or what happens to them when they get to state penitentiaries. Top-level state officials acknowledged they have almost no data on the trend. Nationwide statistics are skimpy at best. Despite the lack of data-and a half decade of plummeting teen crime rates-politicians across the country are rushing to gut the juvenile justice system entirely.

As our society’s ultimate Other, incarcerated kids are voiceless in the mainstream media. For “The Lost Boys,” I went to court so one boy might tell his story. Charged with a drive-by slaying, 16-year-old Sou Liem Saechao of Alameda County, California, was awaiting trial as an adult and looking at life in prison. Sou wanted to talk; his lawyer granted me permission to interview him, as did his parents. Yet the county that deemed Sou mature enough to spend perpetuity in the pen said he was too young to speak to the press—even though the daily papers had named him as an indicted murder suspect. I won—or rather, my paper’s attorney won—the legal battle to interview the teen, but not until after deadline. To tell Son’s story I was forced to rely on his jailhouse writings and conversations with his family.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice is tracking the juvenile justice rollback. To learn more, call the center at (415) 621-5661 or check its Web site at http://www.cjcj.org.