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Treating juveniles as juveniles

A SEEMINGLY alluring argument holds that thorny social and criminal justice problems can be fixed by imposing harsher penalties. Such a policy seems to cost little and makes many feel that they are doing something to increase public safety.

That notion has inspired a misguided piece of legislation on Beacon Hill that would allow the state to sentence juveniles as adults on charges of witness intimidation.

The "stop snitching" ethic and witness intimidation are serious problems. But treating juveniles as adults in the criminal justice system is not the solution. Across the nation each year, an estimated 200,000 youths are prosecuted as adults. In some of the most violent cases, such referrals may be unavoidable.

But research by Donna Bishop, a professor at Northeastern University, and many others has concluded that juveniles who receive adult sentences are not less likely to commit crime in the future. In fact, the research finds that juveniles who went through the adult
system were more likely to go back into the system after their release than their counterparts who remained in juvenile jurisdiction. This may well be due to labeling these youth as serious criminals or limiting their post-release options because they have an adult criminal record. Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is clear: Incarcerating juveniles as adults does not deter future criminal behavior. A special task force supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has looked carefully at the available research and recently
recommended against the practice of subjecting juveniles to adult sentencing, finding that such practices led to an increase in violence.

"As a means of reducing juvenile violence, strengthened juvenile transfer policies are counterproductive," the task force concluded. There are other concerns as well. Adolescents' brains are still developing, giving them less ability to think like adults and consider the
ramifications of criminal behavior.

Despite the prevalent get-tough rhetoric, the public understands the need to treat juveniles as juveniles. Polling commissioned by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and conducted by Zogby International found strong support for alternative approaches to incarceration for juvenile offenders. Seven out of 10 respondents agreed that giving children adult prison sentences would make them more likely to commit subsequent crimes.

Teenagers who threaten and intimidate witnesses, if adjudicated, should be dealt with seriously by the juvenile justice system. These young people cause fear in communities and hinder the ability to prosecute violent
criminals.

While we must protect public safety, we must also provide better approaches to young people who get in trouble. We can craft effective programs that force them to confront their misbehavior, be held accountable, and try to repair the damage they have caused.
The goal of increased public safety is best pursued by providing young people with the support, opportunities, and services they need to grow into happy, healthy, and economically self-sufficient adults. We can not pummel them into "good behavior." We need to help them grow into it.

At the same time, Massachusetts should resist the urge to expand the number of criminal offenses that can lead to a juvenile serving time in a state prison. Reducing witness intimidation by young people demands a better response than referring a number of 14- to 16-year-olds to the adult criminal justice system.

Rather, we need a widespread community offensive to help police and prosecutors regain the trust and support of young people and others who are witnesses to violent crimes. Young people are reluctant to tell adults about acts of misconduct by their peers. If juveniles believe that the police will respect and protect them, they are much more likely to come forward with information about acts of violence including intimidation.

That will require police, local leaders, community groups, churches, schools, and parents to continually stress the civic need to step forward to help stop crime. Young people who have faith in the system will be far more willing to do just that. Jack McDevitt is associate dean for research and graduate studies at the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University and directs the Institute on Race and Justice and the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research. Jorge Martinez is executive director of Project RIGHT.

 
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