TOPICS > Politics

Juvenile Justice

July 26, 2001 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on whether juveniles should be tried and sentenced as adults, we turn to Marsha Levick, legal director for the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. She is also an adjunct professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and at Temple University. And Paul Pfingst, the district attorney for San Diego County. Welcome to you both.

Marsha Levick, should a youngster the age of Nathaniel Brazill, charged with the serious crime he was charged with, be tried as an adult?

MARSHA LEVICK: Certainly, I think not. The reason why I say that is that we make a mistake. It’s almost as if we’ve lost our bearings in jumping to the conclusion that 13-year-olds are simply small adults. They’re not small adults. And it’s incorrect as well to jump to the conclusion that when a juvenile commits a heinous crime like the murder in this case, that they’re somehow magically transformed overnight into an adult.

Nathaniel Brazill, when he committed this crime at 13, had all of the same cognitive, intellectual, neurological, physical and emotional limitations and in some respects incapacities that any child has. To consider that he can be held as culpable as a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old, a 40-year-old, for the crime that was committed, I think, does a great disservice to the youth of this country.

MARGARET WARNER: And to you, Mr. District Attorney, you feel otherwise.

PAUL PFINGST: Well, I do. I don’t think anyone is misled, Margaret, about what it’s like to be a youngster. District attorneys, jurors, judges — they’re all parents, too. We understand what being a 13- year-old is like and that a 13- year-old is not just a little adult, he’s a 13-year-old. However, the bullet that came out of that gun that killed a teacher came from a 13-year-old, and nonetheless the teacher is dead and the family grieves. So it’s absolutely necessary for society to protect itself against people who kill, rape, or do other serious crimes, even if those people are 13, 14, 15, 16 or 17 years of age.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Mr. Pfingst, staying with you, why does trying them in an adult court and sentencing them under adult sentencing… why does that protect society better?

PAUL PFINGST: In most juvenile systems throughout the country, the juvenile courts lose jurisdiction of the young person at age 21. So if a 17-year-old, for example, commits murder and is convicted of that murder, he can only be sentenced to prison or to a juvenile facility until the age of 21, at which time he has to be let go. So he would only serve four years for murder whether he killed one, two, three or five people.

The same thing for a 13-year- old — at the age of 21– in some states at the age of 25 — then the juvenile has to be released. Most people feel that a three-, four-, five-, or six-year sentence for murder is simply inadequate. It doesn’t do enough to protect the public and it doesn’t bring a sense of justice to the people who are grieving the loss of a son or a daughter or a father or a mother.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Levick, what about that point that the juvenile justice system and the sentencing is inadequate to deal with such a severe crime?

MARSHA LEVICK: Well, I think that we need to consider what the purpose of our juvenile justice system and criminal justice system is in this country. There’s a lot of talk that I hear from district attorneys that goes to this issue of protection of the public and public safety. But there’s really uncontradicted research at this point that demonstrates that there’s a much greater risk of reoffending by anyone — any offender, young offender or adult offender — who comes out of the adult criminal justice system, and a significantly lower risk of reoffending for juveniles who are in fact rehabilitated and treated through the juvenile justice system.

The Miami Herald did a recent study, which shows there’s a 35 percent greater risk of reoffending for juveniles who were being prosecuted and convicted as adults in Florida. So I think, first of all, the concern about public safety is simply misplaced. Public safety and rehabilitation are really opposite sides of the same coin. And if we are concerned about protecting the public and ensuring that we don’t have greater criminal conduct being committed in the future, then what we should be concerned about is rehabilitating these young people. The way to do that is in the juvenile justice system.

The other point that I would make is that I am also a parent of a 14-year-old. And the notion that sending any 13 or 14-year-old away for eight years of their lives — for the next eight years of one of my child’s lives — and that that would not be a sufficient amount of time, that’s an extraordinary amount of time for a person that age to allow them to get the treatment and to ensure the potential for rehabilitation. I think when we talk about 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds in the same breath, we sometimes confuse ourselves as well. Nathaniel Brazill is 13. He was 13 when the crime was committed. He is 14 now.

He is not a child for whom there is not sufficient time in the juvenile justice system through 21 to address society’s concerns for retribution, for incapacitation, and most importantly for rehabilitation.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Pfingst?

PAUL PFINGST: Where we part company on this is really very simple. We know that if this youngster goes to prison for the next 20 or 25 years, he will not be committing other murders during those 20 or 25 years. Rehabilitation sometimes work, but often does not. I go to court and my deputies go to court everyday, and we have people coming to court every day who have been through the juvenile rehabilitation system and have subsequently killed, robbed, raped, or committed other serious, horrible crimes that victimize sometimes the most defenseless people inside of our society.

What we have to do as a community is recognize that some crimes are just so horrible in their consequences and so painful and long in their duration that a six- or seven-year sentence is simply not adequate to deal with that crime. It is hard for all of us to put a youngster in prison, but sometimes the consequences are: to let that youngster out puts other people at risk and can create other victims. And that’s what’s important here, is that we have made some decisions that are very difficult decisions for any society, for any group of people to make, but I think they’re the right decisions. Sometimes the crime is too terrible.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Pfingst, though, clarify something for us. Are you saying that when a child or youngster is sentenced as an adult, he should be sent to the kind of incarceration that doesn’t have any rehabilitative function? What are you talking about… adult prison or a special kind of juvenile facility?

PAUL PFINGST: For example, in California, when a youngster — a teenager who is not an adult — is convicted, they do not go to an adult prison. Throughout the states of this nation, the youngsters do not go to an adult prison until they are over the age of 18, or in some states, 19. They go to a juvenile facility, in the state of California it’s Tehachapi, where they receive juvenile type of education, training, and various other types of things.

But when they turn 18, then they go to an adult facility. Rehabilitation is a goal for every person who goes to prison. In my judgment and the judgment of America’s prosecutors, police, and judges. But it is not the only goal. The other goal has to be to make sure that a community is protected and that those who have been victimized by a crime get a sense of justice, that the punishment does fit the crime. And in murder, the crime is the most severe.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Levick, I’ve read of some states and some advocates for what they call a blended sentence in which the child is given an adult sentence, but at the time of transfer from the juvenile facility to the adult might get another shot at persuading a judge that he or she was ready to be released. Are you in favor of something like that?

MARSHA LEVICK: Well, it’s… of course it’s not an option that’s available for Nathaniel Brazill in Florida. I think that the problem with blended sentencing, while it has a certain surface appeal, aha, that’s a way of getting around the problem of putting juveniles in adult facilities, is that what we don’t want to do is let the system and let our communities off the hook. What we want to do is make sure that we commit ourselves to preventing crime and to rehabilitating offenders.

I know that there are some professionals who work in the criminal and juvenile justice system, and there are judges — in fact, the judge who handled the case of Nathaniel Abraham in Michigan, a young man who committed murder at 11, who rejected the idea of blended sentencing in that case because he felt that it took away the incentive to rehabilitate a young man who had the potential to be rehabilitated by the age of 21. So, as I said, there’s a surface appeal to it, but I think that it’s a complicated question.

And what we should be most concerned with are really issues that I think Paul and I agree on, and that is certainly concern for the victims, certainly acknowledgment of the heinousness of this crime. But also protection of the public by preventing future criminal activity. And where we part is that the facts are pretty clear at this point that the way to do that is to rehabilitate these offenders in the juvenile justice system as we’ve been doing for the last 100 years and not to do it in adult facilities. There may be some adult facilities in California that may be better facilities than what we currently have.

The vast majority of states in this country are sending these young individuals into adult prisons that don’t have rehabilitation programs, that don’t have adequate education, that don’t have mental health services and counseling, and that cannot provide these young individuals with the treatment and rehabilitation and supervision that they need to become productive when they get out, and they will get out.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Pfingst, a brief final word from you. Address the point Ms. Levick has made a couple of times, which is that the data suggests that the record of re-offending is actually higher in those that are treated in the criminal justice system as adults.

PAUL PFINGST: I think what we have to look at is our court system is filled, day in and day out, with people who went to juvenile facilities who are not rehabilitated, came out, robbed, raped, and murdered. Rehabilitation works for some, but in many cases, the overwhelming majority of cases where rehabilitation has not worked, we have victims.

The victims are the people who have to go to the funerals, have to confront a life of misery because of the crime inflicted by them, by someone who is rotated in and out of the system many, many times. The juvenile system sometimes rehabilitates, but most often, most frequently, when people get to the stage of murder, rape, and robbery, the prospects for successful rehabilitation diminish, and that’s where it kicks in the need to make sure that society is safe from people who are violent and present a high degree of risk to members of the community.

These are difficult issues. No one wants to pretend these issues are easy or that they’re not complex, but at the end of the day, murder and the victimization of murder has to be treated seriously.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mr. Pfingst and Ms. Levick, we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.

PAUL PFINGST: Thank you.