Day Two: John Jay Juvenile Justice Conference

NEW YORK – The John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice is holding a two-day conference for journalists on its campus in New York Monday and Tuesday.

While the conference, Kids Behind Bars, Where’s the Justice in America’s Juvenile Justice System?, is primarily meant for journalists, many of the topics will be of interest not only to those in the field, but the general public as well.

JJIE/Youth Today’s John Fleming and Clay Duda are attending the conference and continue their reporting today. For Day One coverage head over to our post here.


Panel One:

Mike Bocain

Mike Bocian, provided the keynote address Tuesday morning. Bocian, is a founding partner at GBA Strategies, a public opinion research firm.

Bocian discussed recent findings showing that most of those polled accepted that young offenders could change and that there was widespread support among those polled for prevention and rehabilitation. He also pointed out that those polled seem to be much more willing to favor rehabilitation and prevention when it was clear the subject of the poll was juveniles.

The overwhelming majority of those polled felt that youth who committed both violent and non-violent crimes should be housed with other youth, not adults.

The public, Bocian said, cited public safety and reducing recidivism as the best reasons for juvenile justice reform. For the most part, however, they did not mention budgetary concerns as reasons for change. He noted, however, that many reform measures currently being undertaken are being driven by budgetary concerns.

More than 50 percent of those polled said they found former youth offenders one of the most trustworthy experts on juvenile justice issues. They were found to be more trustworthy than experts such as juvenile judges and prosecutors.

Bocian also spoke about the importance of language. He pointed out, for example, that 42 percent of those polled saw “juvenile” as a negative term, while 37 percent saw the word “youth” as a positive term.

Liz Ryan, the president of the Campaign for Youth Justice and R. Dwayne Betts, an author, commentator and former youth offender, discussed Bocian’s findings.

Liz Ryan

Ryan stressed to the journalists and policy experts assembled the importance of understanding how many young people are brought into the criminal justice system each year.

Some 250,000 children are prosecuted in adult criminal court each year, she said. She also pointed out that not just a handful of states, but every state tries kids as adults. “It is wrong when you hear that not many kids are tried as adults each year,” she said.

Ryan said that many people will say that kids are locked up for a reason and that they must have done something wrong. Yet, she insists, this is often wrong; often kids are tried for relatively minor offenses and there are many instances when young people are locked up and have not even been charged.

Ryan also pointed out that juvenile crime is actually going down, not up, but that juvenile violent crime is not going down because more people are being locked up.

Dwayne Betts spoke of his time in prison and his journey through life since his release.

Dwayne Betts

Referring to the poll’s findings, Betts said while he found it encouraging, it still reminds him that young people in the system are invisible.

Youth in prison have been ignored for decades, he said.

He pointed out that he was locked up for car jacking when he was 16 and is 31 today. He was tried as an adult and served eight years in prison.

One of his cellmates was serving a 63-year-sentence for a non-homcidal offense he committed at age 16.

Betts said that his first 10 days in detention were spent in solitary confinement. He had no mattress, he said, no pillow and no sheets. A brutal introduction, he said, to confinement.

Betts reminded the audience that people who go to prison are more than the statistics they represent.

“I was treated as a number from the beginning,” he said. “I was an honors student, but the prosecutor never saw that. The judge admitted to me, in front of my mother and my family, that he was under no illusion that prison would help me.”

Betts went on to obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Maryland, authored A Question of Freedom, a memoir, was awarded a Soros Fellowship and is currently a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard.

Panel Two:

Judge Steve Teske, a juvenile court judge from Clayton County, Ga., and a frequent contributor to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, moderated a panel on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

Others on the panel included: Nancy Heitzeg, a professor of sociology & co-director of Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity at St. Catherine University; Elton Anglada of the Juvenile Defender’s Association of Pennsylvania and Joseph Gaudett, the chief of police of Bridgeport, Conn.

Professor Heitzeg explained that the school-to-prison pipeline is essentially a growing trend that involves tracking kids out of school and into the criminal justice system. There are, she argues, several reasons for this growing trend, including the re-segregation of schools, growing poverty rates, the over representation of kids of color in special education classes, the underrepresentation of kids in advanced classes and zero tolerance policies.

She said that zero tolerance policies being implemented in schools have increased, while at the same time, violence in schools has fallen across the nation.

Zero tolerance policies have resulted in some three million suspensions and 100,000 expulsions per year.

Heitzeg said there is a blurring of the lines between the educational and judicial systems. With police in the school and drug-sniffing dogs in the hallways, she asked, “how likely is it that you are going to go to school if school continually resembles jail?”

She also pointed out that racial disparity is the biggest issue in the school-to-prison pipeline. Endless studies, she said, show that African-American students are punished at much higher rates than non-minority students, though studies also show that white youth engage in the same kind of disruptive behavior at a similar rate.

She cautioned the assembled journalists that while the individual story may be compelling, that it is important to explain the larger context of the school-to-prison pipeline. It does not exist in a vacuum, she said. It is complicated, and it is about deeply entrenched racial stereotypes.

In a question and answer session, Chief Gaudett, talked about his department’s philosophy in dealing with children. He said his officers are trained to engage with children in an attempt to humanize the officer and to build trust with the kids.

After a lively discussion with Teske, almost a courtroom exchange, Anglada spoke about the lack of due process in public schools.

He pointed out that when a child is arrested in school, the kid is expelled or suspended without legal representation, that he or she is already thrown out of the school without due process.

He also spoke of the reality of family court. It is a place that is seen by many as “kiddy court,” it is not, he said, “taken seriously. It is where many attorneys cut their teeth. It’s not a bad idea, it is good experience, but it is not good for juveniles.”

He added that juvenile court is incentivized to plea kids out. It pays low-paid attorneys more, he said, to plea than to carry the case forward.

Anglada spoke at length about a recent scandal in Luzerne County, Pa., that involved kickbacks paid to juvenile judges in exchange for sending juveniles to detention.

It was, he said, a big and important story. But it only became a story after the judges in the case were indicted. When it became “Kids for Cash,” Anglada said, it was a big story. But few though it was a story when his organization was trying to get anyone’s attention, including the state’s Supreme Court, to the fact that some 7,000 kids had gone through juvenile court in Luzerne County without legal representation.

“Why wasn’t ‘7,000 kids without an attorney’ not a story?” he asked.

For Day One coverage head over to our post here.

Photos by Clay Duda |

Youth Transfers to the Adult Corrections System More Likely to Reoffend

Razor wire fence borders the Metro Regional Youth Detention center in Atlanta, Ga. JJIE Staff, 2010. File photo.Juveniles transferred to adult corrections systems reoffend at a higher rate than those who stay in the juvenile justice system, according to a new report from the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). The report also found insufficient evidence that trying youths as adults acts as a crime deterrent.

Entitled “You’re an Adult Now,” the report published in December 2011 is based on the findings of three-dozen juvenile justice and adult corrections experts convened by the NIC in 2010 to identify challenges when youth are transferred to adult court.

Highlighted in the report, written by Jason Ziedenberg, director of juvenile justice at M+R Strategic Services, was research by the Centers for Disease Control that found youth transferred to the adult system are 34 percent more likely than youth who remain in the juvenile justice system to be re-arrested for violent or other crimes.

The safety of juveniles in adult prisons is also a serious concern, according to the report, which cites a Bureau of Justice Statistics study that found, 21 percent of the victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in jails in 2005 were under the age of 18. The same study reported 13 percent were victims in 2006. However, the report notes only one percent of inmates are younger than 18.

Also cited as a serious concern, the report said juveniles often lacked access to services for mental health and learning disabilities.

In the report, the NIC calls for more research into the effects of juvenile transfers.

Photo by Clay Duda | JJIE

Disney, Take Beyond Scared Straight Aff the Air

Leonard Witt
Leonard Witt

An Open Letter to

Robert A. Iger, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company

Dear Mr. Iger:

I know Disney is a large company and you, like Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, can’t oversee everything. So I want to let you know about one of your company’s investments -- Disney’s one-third equity stake in the A&E Television Networks. Since it is not fully under Disney’s control, maybe that’s why you haven’t been watching A&E’s "Beyond Scared Straight." Certainly if you had, you would have intervened and pulled it off the air, but alas last week marked the beginning of its second season.

I am calling your attention to "Beyond Scared Straight" because it doesn’t at all fit the core principles of the Disney Corporation. I am sure you have read those core principles, maybe you even helped write them because they are front and center on your website.

Here, I will reprint them as a reminder:

Three core principles help guide our daily decisions and actions:

  • Act and create in an ethical manner, and consider the consequences of our decisions
  • Champion the happiness and well-being of kids, parents, and families in our endeavors
  • Inspire kids, parents, employees and communities to make a lasting, positive change in the world

Let’s take them one at time:

  • Act and create in an ethical manner, and consider the consequences of our decisions

scared_straight_seriesThe evidence is in, the Scared Straight program where kids are sent into prisons to be scared straight, does not work. Experts  writing for and at other reputable publications have made it very clear that volumes of research have shown the Scared Straight approach does not work. Here is what Joe Vignati, director of Justice Programs at the Georgia Governor's Office For Children and Families, recently wrote: “The scared straight approach is an inappropriate and unacceptable means for disciplining children. This approach has been shown to cause short- and long- term harm and actually INCREASES the likelihood of re-offending among some participants.”

Of course, you are free to argue with Mr. Vignati and the scores of researchers, but if by chance, you might believe in empirical evidence, then you might ask yourself and the folks at A&E if all of you have acted in an ethical manner and considered the consequences of your decision to subject these kids to the public humiliation they receive on the show.

That brings us the second of Disney’s core principles:

  •   Champion the happiness and well-being of kids, parents, and families in our endeavors

Does that principle include having several hulking adults surround individual teenagers and scream at them until the teens break down into tears? Does championing their well being include dressing them up in prison stripes and have then duck walk across the prison floor in front of your two million-plus viewers who watched the show last week? Does it include threatening to toss one of the teens into a cell with a prisoner who eyes the boy up and down and smiles big -- or coupling him with a big ugly guy who wants to make him his girlfriend with the complicity of the guards? You know what Mr. Iger, I found it down right disgusting and I do believe it tarnishes your image and Walt Disney’s legacy that has been put in your trust.

The final Disney core principle:

  •  Inspire kids, parents, employees and communities to make a lasting, positive change in the world

If you think screaming at kids until it gets your stomach churning is inspiration to make a lasting change, then sir, you and Disney have a problem.

Enough, please do me a favor, watch the program, then call your equity partners at the Hearst Corporation and NBCUniversal and pull this show off the air now. Then apologize to everyone who really cares about kids and then invest some real money in the kids who have been in the program and get them the help they need to lead productive lives.

John Roman On The Calculus of Flogging

Flogging conjures up grotesque images. American slaves flogged by their overseer. Conscripted sailors flogged by their masters. Such an idea wouldn’t get any traction in a civilized society like ours, right?

Maybe. John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Peter Moskos has floated a proposal to replace each year of prison with two lashes. His motives seem pure—he believes the American prison system is completely dysfunctional and that millions, maybe billions, could be saved with this simple change in punishment, with no effect on public safety.

Putting aside for a moment the moral baseness of the idea and that pesky Eight Amendment proscription against torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment(flogging has to be four-for-four on that one), let’s consider if it would even work.

There is a long and fascinating law and economics literature on the relative merits of severity versus certainty as ways to prevent crime. The idea is straightforward. The main aim of punishment is to set society's costs of incarcerating a criminal in prison equal to the benefits of keeping that person from running amuck on the streets. (Rehabilitation can also correct, but that is a separate issue).

Flogging, in this case, is just a different way of meting out a severe punishment that substitutes intensity for duration. The big question, then, is whether criminals will commit new crimes once back on the streets after being flogged -- new crimes that certainly would have been prevented by incarceration in an expensive prison cell.

The answer is, of course, that if the punishments are to be equivalent, then society would have to consider these two choices to be at least about equal (I don’t think flogging advocates want less severe penalties for criminals). But, if the punishment is of the same severity, why would it yield anything different than the status quo?

More important, it’s the wrong question. The right question is whether certainty or severity is the best tool to induce people to self-regulate and desist from crime.

The answer is that question is crystal clear: certainty wins, hands down.

Consider a typical 17- year-old running with some kids who are, however fleetingly, weighing the consequences of beating up a rival. Suppose they know from past experience that they probably won’t get caught and punished, but that if they are, they will get 6 months in a juvenile detention center.

Now suppose the law changes: though the kids are still relatively unlikely to be caught and punished, they can expect to spend one year in juvenile detention -- twice as long for the same crime. Will this change their behavior in that brief moment of self-reflection? Not likely.

Now suppose, instead, that the law changes and through some magic the likelihood that they will be caught and punished doubles. Is that information likely to change their behavior? It just might, which is a big improvement. In fact, the research suggests that if certainty increases, severity can decrease, and outcomes will still improve.

This simple idea is being taken very seriously in criminal and juvenile justice circles at the moment. Flogging? Not so much.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.


Florida County to Detain Kids in Adult Jail

Central Florida’s Polk County has become the first jurisdiction in that state to make plans under a new state law to house juveniles who are awaiting trial in adult jail rather than in a state juvenile detention center, according to, a Winter Haven, Fla., news site.

That change was made possible because Polk Sheriff Grady Judd pushed state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, to sponsor a bill in this year’s Florida Legislature that loosens the standards county jails must meet to house juveniles.

The state currently charges counties $237 per day to hold each juvenile in pretrial detention, and that rate is expected to rise later this year. Judd told that the county expects to spend $70-$90 per day per juvenile detainee. He predicts the switch will save the county around $1.5 million.

Previously, juveniles in pretrial detention fell under  state jurisdiction, but the new law would allow counties to retain custody from start to finish.  Under the new legislation, counties no longer have to meet state Department of Juvenile Justice standards, but must adhere to yet-to-be written guidelines set forth by the state's Model Jail Standards Committee.

County jails that opt to handle juvenile detainees still will have to meet a federal requirement that the juveniles not come into contact with adult detainees.

Currently, Polk County — which includes the small cities of Lakeland and Lake Wales, and has a population of more than 600,000 — houses 40 juveniles who face adult charges in its jail, while 50-60 juveniles who don’t face adult charges are housed in the state regional pretrial detention center.

A challenge for the county will be how to keep juveniles of different ages, genders and offender statuses separate from each other in the jail, so that, for example the youngest, mildest alleged offenders don’t face threats from the older, bigger and more violent detainees.



McNeill Stokes On Sentencing Juveniles as Adults and Cruel and Unusual Punishment

In 1997, a 14-year-old boy named Christopher Middleton pled guilty in a Georgia Superior Court to armed robbery, two counts of aggravated assault and kidnapping arising out of theft of the victim’s vehicle for joyriding by his juvenile friends. (His mother Jajuana Calloway wrote about him in this space last week.)

He was sentenced as an adult without the possibly of parole pursuant to a measure that was enacted by the Georgia Legislature (H.R. 440 and 441) in 1995 to get tough on juvenile crime and often called seven deadly sins legislation. The prosecution had agreed to a recommended 20-year sentence. However, at the sentencing hearing the victim who had not received any physical injuries, said she would not feel safe with the 14-year old being released before he would be 45 years of age. The trial judge then sentenced him to 30 years without the possibility of parole.

I have filed a post-conviction remedy currently pending before the  Court of Appeals of Georgia  contesting that Christopher’s sentence is void and unconstitutional under the recent United States Supreme Court case of Graham v. Florida. This case, decided earlier this year, prohibited the imposition of a life sentence without parole of a juvenile offender who had been convicted of a non-homicide crime.

The High Court constitutionally mandated that while a juvenile defendant need not be guaranteed eventual release from a life sentence, that the juvenile must have some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of the life term. The 30-year sentence without the possibility of parole to which Christopher Middleton was sentenced is more than double the life sentence for consideration of release on parole in Georgia in effect at the time of his sentencing.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida established the constitutional precedent that it is cruel and unusual punishment under current moral standards to sentence non-homicide juvenile offenders to a life sentence without being eligible for parole during the life term. The Court further instructed that juveniles could not, by legislation, be classified with the adult worst offenders and that judicial exercise of independent judgment is required in sentencing of juveniles.

The Court, in Graham v. Florida, emphasized the reasons that juveniles should be treated differently from adults, stating that because juveniles have lessened culpability they are less deserving of the most severe punishments. As compared to adults, juveniles have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. They are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure and their characters are not as well formed.

These salient characteristics mean it is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.

Accordingly, juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders. While a juvenile is not absolved of responsibility for their actions, but their transgressions are not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.

The courts should reconsider and rectify such sentences that have resulted in manifest injustice to juveniles having to serve sentences without parole that mandate longer incarceration than had they been sentenced to life imprisonment which is now declared to be cruel and unusual punishment by the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida.

McNeill Stokes, is an Atlanta attorney representing Christopher Middleton.


Update: Federal Civil Rights suit aimed at Alabama Sheriff who ran Scared Straight-like Program

scared straightThe Anniston Star is reporting that a federal civil rights lawsuit has been filed against a Calhoun County, Ala., Sheriff who is accused of running a program that put juveniles into close contact with hardened criminals in a manner that is similar to the "scared straight" programs.

The Star quotes experts as saying the way Sheriff Larry Amerson operated the program runs contrary to federal and state law.

The suit was brought by the father of a juvenile identified as J.B. It alleges that at one point during a recent visit by J.B., a deputy and an inmate verbally and physically abused him, pushing him and hurling racial slurs at him. The suit says that Amerson later came to speak to the boy. The Star obtained a copy of a video of part of that conversation, showing Amerson  "grabbing and holding down a boy dressed in an orange-striped inmate jumpsuit. The boy, whom the suit identifies as J.B., is shackled and has his hands cuffed behind his back during the incident," wrote The Star's Cameron Steele.


Probation Domination

Probation was the most serious verdict in one-third of teen crime in the U.S. In 2007, 1.7 million delinquency cases were handled by courts with juvenile jurisdiction. This has increased 34% over the past three decades. Nearly 60% of the cases were ordered by the court while the remainder agreed to some form of voluntary probation. This is according to a report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Family Feud Part 2

The Georgia House of Representatives has nixed the absorption of the Family Connection Partnership and its funding into the Governor’s Office of Children and Families (GOCF), an agency created in 2008 by then-Governor Sonny Perdue. The Senate has not yet voted on the appropriations.

Officials of the GOFC had said folding the Partnership into their agency would save the state money and simplify access to information and services. Opponents of the move countered that consolidating the entities could undermine the Partnership’s commitment to community-based decision-making, jeopardize its private funding, and increase the size of state government.

The House even included notes emphasizing its decision to quash the proposed transfer of the Partnership, a 20-year-old statewide public-private collaboration with an $8 million budget. “It is the intent of the General Assembly that Family Connection Partnership remains an independent non-profit and shall not be merged into the Governor’s Office for Children and Families,” one note says. “It is the intent of the General Assembly that these funds be administered solely by Family Connection Partnership and shall not be administratively transferred by memorandum of understanding to any other state agency,” says another.

“The House demonstrated its support of the 20 years of collaborative work that we are accomplishing in every county in Georgia to improve the lives of children and families,” said Taifa Butler, the Partnership’s director of policy and communications, via email. “We are thankful for the General Assembly's continued support and for the outpouring of support that we have received across the state from our local and state-level partners. We look forward to continued conversations with the House and the Governor's Office on how we can maximize support and funding for the local collaborative work.”

The House appropriations bill also funded the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, leaving it under the judicial branch.

Last fall discussion arose about moving the commission, a 37-member panel made up of representatives of law enforcement, courts and advocacy groups from each of the state’s congressional districts, to the GOCF. The move was rejected by the state legislature in the past and opposed by many commission members. Perdue replaced a majority of those members in the closing months of his administration.

Two years ago, Perdue attempted to do away with the commission. Then, in last year’s legislative session, his office proposed cutting its budget and transferring the rest to the Office for Children and Families. The 2010 legislature rejected both proposals, instead placing the commission under the Administrative Office of the Courts, where this year’s House left it.

“We’re being treated as a very valuable asset by the legislative and executive branches and the judiciary,” said Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker, who chairs the commission.

Perdue formed the Governor’s Office of Children and Families in 2008 to fund and coordinate the state’s efforts in prevention, intervention and treatment services for children, including programs dealing with juvenile crime and drug abuse. The office also maintains statistics on juvenile arrests, detention and probation.

Judge Steven Teske Says We Should Grow up and Start Treating Kids as Kids

Teske-10-771x578crop2[This op-ed is the first of a three-part series by Judge Teske on the subject of trying juveniles as adults]

I got up this morning and started my routine toward the morning news-making coffee, feeding the cat and dog, and turning off all the porch lights-and upon pouring my first cup and sitting in what my wife calls my “man chair,” I turn the tube on, and there it was-on CNN-“fewer states are trying juveniles as adults.”

I already knew this as a matter of fact having served as Georgia’s representative on the Federal Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice -- a committee that advises the president, Congress, and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) on juvenile justice matters -- and as chair of our State Advisory Group (Governor’s Office for Children and Families), which distributes federal juvenile justice grant funds to support effective programs for juveniles in Georgia. But watching CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor Sunny Hostin discuss the merits of this new trend, sent a rush of mixed emotions from excitement to thinking, “It’s about time,” and concluding with, “Will Georgia ever follow suit?”

Ms. Hostin was well informed.  She pointed to the adolescent brain development research of the 90s using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which found that the frontal lobe of the brain, which filters emotion into logical response, is not fully developed until age 21. (Geidd et al., 1999).

In an article to be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing titled “A Study of Zero Tolerance Policies in Schools: A Multi-Integrated Systems Approach to Improve Outcomes for Adolescents,” I set forth why the MRI research should dictate policy decision-making for the handling of juvenile offenses.

Although the article focuses on school offenses and the counter-productive results of zero tolerance policies, it is equally applicable to all offenses, including serious violent felonies when it comes to the process of deciding if a youth should be handled in a juvenile or adult court.

Georgia is one of those states still clinging to its automatic transfer law -- SB 440 -- the law that brings kids ages 13 and up to adult court if charged with one of “seven deadly sins.” Given this trend away from the adultification of our youth, is it time for Georgia to reconsider SB 440?

I think so, but that is my opinion and my opinion doesn’t make policy-nor does it influence it! But after listening to Ms. Hostin on CNN, maybe my opinion is not in the minority. One thing is for certain -- my opinion is grounded in evidence that treating kids as adults in most circumstances is ineffective.

Despite the evidence against treating youth as adults, why do most of our policymakers refuse to change the law? After all, this issue will never go away. The strength of the evidence-grounded in both behavioral and medical science is here to stay and will continue to be a thorn in the side of policymakers. And don’t be fooled thinking that the juvenile code re-write -- whenever it passes -- will sweep this issue under the carpet. It doesn’t address this issue.

The irony of the proposed juvenile code is that it was re-written to bring Georgia into the 21st century when it comes to evidence-based practices in juvenile justice; yet it ignores the strongest growing trend grounded in best evidence-“Don’t Treat Kids as Adults!”

The evidence will no doubt command those immersed in juvenile justice practice to relentlessly bombard policy makers until they admit that sustaining SB 440 is merely a political decision to “look tough” on juvenile crime although the evidence says it’s not tough. And if policy makers continue the status quo because it’s politically efficient, maybe-just maybe-the bombardment of evidence against SB 440 may eventually convince them to inch their way toward other changes in SB 440 that will save some of these youth from the abuses of a non-rehabilitative adult system designed for adults with fully developed frontal brains.

Consider why we no longer execute juveniles in this country. In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the U.S. Supreme Court held that it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute a person under the age of 18. The court used the “evolving standards of decency” test and pointed to the increasing infrequency with which states were executing juveniles. At the time of the decision, 20 states had the juvenile death penalty on the books, but only six states had executed prisoners for crimes committed as juveniles since 1989.

The Court also looked at practices in other countries and sadly we were in the company of  Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and China.

Since 1990, the Court noted that each of these countries had either abolished the death penalty for juveniles or made public disavowal of the practice, and that the United States stood alone in allowing execution of juvenile offenders. The Court finally pointed out that only the United States and Somalia -- you read me right, SOMALIA, a failed state considered one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world -- had not ratified Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (September 2, 1990), which expressly prohibits capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, relied on the MRI research Ms. Hostin referred to on CNN.  Justice Kennedy mocked the concept of treating youth like adults by pointing to the paradox in our treatment of them. Going back to our English common law forefathers we have recognized that adolescents possess a lack of maturity and sense of responsibility compared to adults -- long before there was research to confirm this.

Look at the statistics; youth are overrepresented in almost every category involving reckless behavior. This concept of adolescent rebellion and reckless conduct is so engrained in our societal thought that our laws prohibit youth under 18 from voting, serving on juries, smoking tobacco, or marrying without parental consent. In recent years, most states prohibited youth under 21 from drinking alcoholic beverages.

I think the most significant problem with laws that adultify youth -- whether to execute them or incarcerate for long periods -- is that studies show juveniles are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure. Consequently, they have less control over their own environment. In other words, they lack the freedom, unlike most adults, to escape their criminogenic setting. How sadly ironic that youth caught in an abusive and neglected setting can be removed and placed in foster care, but youth caught in a criminogenic setting are removed and treated like an adult-they are incarcerated along with adults.

Paradoxically, this was in part the reason why legislation in many states was passed in the ‘90s treating kids as adults -- they are inclined to make poor decisions. The other part was the increase in juvenile crime during the early nineties that led to the now regretted article by Princeton Professor John Dilulio titled The Coming of the Super-Predators, which called for the treatment of kids who commit violent crimes as adults.

Dilulio theorized about a new generation of male youth raised in “moral poverty,” who “lived by the meanest code of the meanest streets, a code that reinforces rather than restrains their violent, hair-trigger mentality … So for as long as their youthful energies hold out, they will do what comes ‘naturally’: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.”

Dilulio concluded that rehabilitation for these youth was inappropriate and that juvenile courts were not equipped to handle these “super-predators.” Legislation to adultify youth charged with violent crimes soon followed. Forty-seven states passed such statutes by 1998, and Georgia was one of them.

I say “regretted” because the author has since retreated from this position. About the same time his article was published, juvenile crime rates fell and are now at the lowest levels in recorded history. (Krisberg, Juvenile Justice: Redeeming Our Children, 2005). Ironically, Dilulio has since reversed his belief and now embraces rehabilitation and reform. (Becker, As Ex-Theorist on Young ‘Superpredators,’ Bush Aide Has Regrets, 2001).

Despite the professor’s regretful conclusion, his observation about a new generation of male youth raised in “moral poverty” has some merit — it’s his conclusion that is wrong.  Professor Dilulio did not have the benefit the adolescent brain research. He did not anticipate the response of sociologists, psychologists, clinicians and forward-thinking juvenile justice practitioners to the changing evolving culture of the American family.  He did not anticipate the resilience of our juvenile justice system.

The increase in juvenile crime in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s is, in part, related to the changes undergone by the family since the ‘70s. These changes had a profound impact on many children and youth. Take for instance the substantial increase of children born outside of marriage, rising from 11 percent of all births in 1970 to 36 percent in 2004 (National Center on Health Statistics, 2006).

Research studies show children raised outside of marriage have an elevated risk of conduct disorders, psychological problems, low self-esteem, difficul­ties forming friendships, academic failure and weak emotional ties to parents, especially fathers (Amato and Keith, 1991; Amato, 2001). These characteristics are closely associated to criminogenic behavior that often manifests into delinquent conduct.

The increase in gangs during this period exacerbated the situation because gangs tend to attract youth with problems generally associated with single parent households. During the time the professor published his “Super-predator” article, the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence published a study showing an increase in the form of youth violence -- their acts were more “lethal” resulting in more deaths and serious bodily injury. The study concluded that more guns were getting into the hands of youth. (Elliott, Youth Violence: An Overview, 1994).  Other studies revealed both an increase in gangs and their lethality due to access to guns. (Klein, 1995; Klein and Maxson, 1989; Miller, 1974, 1992; Spergel, 1995).

Consider, for example, that in addition to the above risks of children in single parent households, the child poverty rate is more than four times higher in single-parent households than in married-couple households — 34 percent compared with 8 percent.

Many studies regarding poverty and the family conclude that economically deprived parents struggle for the survival of their families. These struggles often cause parental neglect of children — not the traditional neglect that can cause children to be removed from the home — but the type that induces personality disorders in children later objectified in delinquent conduct. Specifically, studies have shown that parents are often unable to pay attention to the importance of parental care. Consequently, children in poor families usually miss the personality development teachings primarily taught in the family.

I am sure that some, especially single parents, may be offended by my comments, so allow me to point out what I am not saying. I am not saying that single parents lack good parenting skills nor are bad parents. The parent is not necessarily the problem -- it’s the circumstances and environment that single parent households may find them in that gives rise to criminogenic issues in the child. Therefore, I am not describing most single parents, but I am referring to the ever-increasing number of single parents who are unfortunately trapped in poorer circumstances -- for whatever reason.

The overwhelming number of parents of delinquent youth in my court is single and poor. Most of these youth do not know the identity of their father or they have little to no contact with them. The research is overwhelming concerning the adversity facing youth with absent fathers -- they are at higher risk of incarceration.

I cannot overstate how many single parent mothers of low income come before me in tears crying over their child, asking for help and explaining how hard it is to stay on top of her child as a single parent. Most of these parents are good. They love their child.  They are making sacrifices. For some, however, the sacrifices are not enough. Unfortunately, other circumstances are working against their parental efforts such as poverty, high crime neighborhoods and street gangs -- not to mention the child’s unique psychopathy associated with these circumstances.

These circumstances have led to new and different approaches. These new approaches are intensive and focus on family function. It is not uncommon for judges and probation officers to require the entire family to be treated using multi-systemic therapy, family functional therapy and wrap-around services. These services have proven successful with many families.

Professor Dilulio retreated from his original position because he came to realize that youth are under neurological construction and many are being wired by anti-social surroundings and unfortunate circumstances not prone toward success. In other words, if kids are wired to do stupid things, they can be re-wired to do smart things-regardless of their adverse circumstances. They are not adults — they are kids!