Editorial

Justice isn't served when offenders under 16 are treated as adults

Justice isn't served when offenders under 16 are treated as adults and thrown into a throwaway system.

December 12, 2012 

They are 13 and 15. They are brothers and they are boys. Police say they shot and killed another teen in Raleigh last August. And state law says that juveniles 13 years and older facing a first degree murder charge in which there has been a finding of probable cause must be tried as adults.

So on Monday, a grand jury indicted the brothers and released their names, Brayan Hernandez-Sierra, 13, and his brother, Ceferino Hernandez-Sierra, 15. If convicted, they face the probability of juvenile confinement followed by long sentences in adult prison.

Some say the punishment would fit the crime, but the ages – murder indictments of two boys not old enough to get driver’s licenses – say the process does not fit the defendants.

If guilty, the brothers need to be held accountable. That would mean, at the juvenile court level, confinement, supervision until 21 and exposure to the kind of programs that have turned around lives when applied to youths accused of lesser crimes. What juveniles convicted as adults usually get is shunted into long sentences during which their ability to grow and change is ignored. Their lives are essentially tossed away.

It shouldn’t be that way, says Tamar Birckhead, an associate law professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and faculty supervisor of the UNC Juvenile Justice Clinic. “It’s common sense that kids are different than adults,” she says. “They should not be found to be culpable in the same way.”

Birckhead adds that different punishment does not mean no punishment. “I don’t think anyone would say they shouldn’t be held accountable, but the punishment should be proportionate to their age and developmental status,” she says.

Warped justice

Adult prosecution of juveniles under 18 – and particularly under 16 – distorts justice. It removes the flexibility and protections accorded by the juvenile court system in favor of something ostensibly tougher. But mostly it reflects a fear of “bad seed” juveniles who are beyond redemption and fit only for warehousing in adult prisons.

Many states lowered the age of transfer into the adult court system in the early 1990s amid an alarming rise in violent juvenile crime, much of it fueled by the arrival of crack cocaine in the nation’s cities.

North Carolina lowered its age of transfer from 14 to 13 after a crime that seemed to confirm the inherent irredeemability of certain young offenders. In 1992, 13-year-old Gregory Gibson brutally murdered an elderly widow in Durham, but could not be sentenced to serve time beyond age 18. The change in the law appeared justified by what Gibson did when he got out. He was charged with a second murder. While awaiting trial, he hanged himself in the Durham County jail in 1998. He was 20.

There is an adage among lawyers that hard cases make bad law, the point being that cases far outside the norm should not shape laws that punish more common offenses. .

Cases like Gibson’s remain rare, and a wave of young super predators feared in the early 1990s didn’t overwhelm the cities. The reverse has occurred. Juvenile crime has dropped steadily. The drop has been especially strong in North Carolina – 37 percent since 2002 – in large part because of programs that identify and help young people who are drifting into crime and toward prison.

Deterrent effect

Some may argue that trying juveniles as adults has contributed to the decline in crime, but that was not the conclusion of a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice study. It found that state laws allowing the transfer of juveniles to adult court vary widely and are hard to assess, but it added that “insofar as these laws are intended to deter youth crime generally, or to deter or reduce further criminal behavior on the part of youth subjected to transfer, research over several decades has generally failed to establish their effectiveness.”

While lawmakers are unlikely to step back on juvenile justice, the U.S. Supreme Court has eliminated the worst excesses. In 2005, the court outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed before age 18. This year the court ruled that juveniles can’t be subject to mandatory sentences of life without parole, though judges can still impose that penalty for homicide.

The court has acted in part because of scientific findings on brain development. Though young people acquire an understanding of right and wrong at an early age, brain scans show that parts of the brain’s frontal lobe that control impulses are not fully developed until early adulthood. As the law makes allowances for people with impaired mental capacity or mental illness, it should also make allowances for juveniles who are not yet fully equipped to decide how to act – and when not to.

Teens alone

The circumstances of the Raleigh case also bring to light issues beyond juvenile behavior. They raise questions about the society in which the crime occurred. Court proceedings and documents provide a view of teenagers in this case who appear rootless and unrestrained.

The 15-year-old was driving a car and already has an infant child. His 13-year-old brother had a gun at hand. The 16-year-old victim had spent the night in a vacant apartment with two girls. The boys on both sides claimed to be in gangs.

In all likelihood, this case will end with a plea agreement and long sentences beginning in juvenile detention centers and continuing into adult prison. The case will be closed, but the many issues it raises for juveniles in serious trouble will remain open and in need of being addressed with more than a reflexive and automatic move to “get tough.”

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