August 11, 1998The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript
Two boys were convicted of murder in the Jonesboro school shootings. How should the legal system handle such difficult cases? After a background report, a panel discusses the possible options.
MARGARET WARNER: Now four perspectives on how juveniles accused of murder are handled in the criminal justice system. Steve Drizin is a supervising attorney at the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University's Law School. Lawrence Steinberg is a professor of psychology at Temple University. He's also director of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice. Linda Collier is an attorney who has represented children in the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice System. She also teaches a course on juvenile delinquency at Cabrini College in Pennsylvania. And James Backstrom is the county attorney in Dakota County, Minnesota. He chairs the juvenile justice advisory committee for the National District Attorney's Association.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
August 11, 1998:
A background report on youth accused of murder.
May 22, 1998:
Three experts debate recent rash of school shootings and other violence.
March 26, 1998:
Discussing the rise of youth violence.
March 25, 1998:
A shooting at an Arkansas school leaves 5 dead.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of youth.
Welcome, all of you. Mr. Steinberg, start us out by giving us an overview of what the states are doing and how much of a variation there is among the states in how they treat young people accused of murder.
Juvenile justice systems are becoming more severe and punitive.
LAWRENCE STEINBERG, Psychologist: Well, as you mentioned, there's a great deal of variation from state to state, although the one phenomenon that's in common across states is that states around the country have all gotten tougher on juvenile in the last several years, tougher in terms of transferring more and more of them to adult court and tougher also within the juvenile justice system, that is, that the kinds of dispositions that are being recommended and ordered within the juvenile justice system are more severe and more punitive than they have been in the past.
MARGARET WARNER: And explain, what is the practical effect really of putting someone on trial in a juvenile court versus an adult court. What is really the practical difference?
LAWRENCE STEINBERG: There really two different kinds of differences. One is that different rules apply to the court procedures. That is, it's much clearer than adult court, the usual rules of due process will govern what goes on. The juvenile court is a much greater area in this respect. We know from previous decisions that juveniles have certain rights that are the same as adults, but it's not clear in other respects. One issue, for instance, in the Chicago case now and in the case of the younger child in Arkansas is whether these youngsters are competent to stand trial in juvenile court. Competence to stand trial is typically something that we think about in adult criminal court and typically we think about it with respect to individuals who are mentally ill or mentally retarded. Because of these recent crimes, in which children are very, very young, new kinds of issues about whether kids this age can participate in their own defense are being raised.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Collier, your assessment of the trend in the various states and what the practical difference is really between trying them as adults versus children.
Protecting children's rights.
LINDA COLLIER, Attorney: Well, you know, as Dr. Steinberg said, children definitely leave their rights at the door, and they have all the constitutional rights that adults also have. They have the right to be represented by an attorney. They have a right to notice and a hearing. They have a right to remain silent. They have almost all the rights that adults have in juvenile-I won't say juvenile court, but it is juvenile court, because they have the opportunity to express whether or not they felt that they were justified in their actions. They have a right to say what their feelings were about what they did. They also have a right to offer a defense and to confront the witnesses against them. I think that right now we are moving towards expanding juvenile justice to be more inclusive of some more of the adult demeanors in adult court, and I think that that's all for the good, because right now, even though there are some issues, and there were some historical issues about whether or not children under the age of 14 could be competent as witnesses and to stand trial, I don't think those issues exist any longer. I think right now we certainly have a case here which no longer an anomaly where kids are being accused of these violent crimes, and we have to face the issue that these kids need to be treated as adults and be afforded all of the same rights as adults.
MARGARET WARNER: Just expand on that a little bit. Why do you think they need to be treated as adults?
LINDA COLLIER: Well, I think that they can be responsive to what is required of them. I think now we can no longer say that they don't know the difference between right and wrong, as in the case of Jonesboro, there was some premeditation there. To say that there's an issue as to whether or not a child is competent, I think that that is just it's not really reasonable in light of the times. I think that we've-the children have matured to the point where they are beyond rational. They are beyond competent to understand the ramifications of their actions, even if it is violent as a murder. Premeditation indicates that.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Drizin, where do you stand on this question of whether kids charged with particularly premeditated murder should be just tried as adults?
STEVE DRIZIN, Attorney: I think you need to make an individual decision with regard to each case. But I couldn't disagree more that 7 and 8 year olds, and even thirteen and fourteen year olds may not be competent to stand trial. You know, these kids are no different than your 7 or 8 year old who may just be starting to tie their shoes, who's watching cartoons on television, who's just learning to spell and add. The idea of having seven or eight year old grasp what's going on around them in a courtroom is ridiculous! I've represented children who are nine, ten, and eleven, and many of them, they don't have any idea what my role is as an attorney, they can't really participate in their defense to the same extent as older teenagers can. They are unable to understand their Miranda warnings. And they really don't have any basic sense of what's going on in a courtroom, what the nature of the proceedings are. Some kids need to be tried as adults. Certainly, older kids, who are repeat offenders, who are-who perpetrate violence on the community, if they've had an opportunity to receive the services of juvenile court, he can make a much stronger case for 15, 16 year olds. But we shouldn't even be talking about this question with kids as young as seven and eight.
"Do we really want to put seven and eight year-old kids in adult prisons?"
LAWRENCE STEINBERG: I agree entirely. And I think, furthermore, when you make that step to try kids as adults in adult criminal court, then you're faced with the issue of sanctioning them as adults in adult facilities. Are we really-do we really want to put 7 and 8 year old kids in adult prisons? Is that what we're coming to as a society? I mean, I think that this is absolutely insane.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Mr. Backstrom in this, because he's prosecuted young kids and kids. What's your view of this? Should they be prosecuted as adults? Should they be incarcerated as adults?
JAMES BACKSTROM, Dakota County Attorney, Minnesota: Well, again, I think you have to take a look at the individual circumstances in the cases involved, and clearly, kids that are 14 and older, I think, should be under consideration for adult prosecution, given the nature of their crimes and the violence involved in the acts. Kids younger than 14, I think you have to take a look at the individual circumstances, but clearly under 10 I don't think kids of that young age should be facing adult prosecution. So what we need to do is, as a society, is to look for some alternative, because we have to make sure that we have laws in place that hold even these young children accountable for their acts and very serious and violent acts, as we've seen. We have to look for some middle ground, and I've been a proponent of looking at blended sentencing laws, which are kind of a cross between adult prosecution and juvenile prosecution, has a little bit of both, and I think those laws offer some usefulness, as we look at this issue.
MARGARET WARNER: Staying with you for a minute, Mr. Backstrom, Minnesota does have this blended sentencing system and so do I think some nine or ten other states. Just explain briefly how it works.
A new approach: blended sentencing laws.
JAMES BACKSTROM: Well, there's various variations around the country, but under a blended sentencing law, basically a juvenile would be prosecuted in juvenile court, but they would receive both possibly an adult sanction in some states, such as Minnesota, which would hang over their head, that would be kind of one last chance they'd have to correct their behavior, while they're serving out their juvenile court disposition. We also extend the jurisdiction of the court to a longer period of time. In Minnesota it goes up to 21. I think it should go up even higher, and I'm going to be proposing some changes to our legislature to address the situations that we're talking about here today. What do you do with 11, 13 year olds and now 7 and 8 year olds that commit these types of violent crimes? We have to make sure we have laws in place that will hold them adequately accountable, something short of adult prosecution. I think there is alternatives.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Collier, you've been trying to get back in here.
LINDA COLLIER: Yes. I was just going to say that I basically agree with what Mr. Backstrom is saying. I'm not advocating that we send everybody off to the federal pen, certainly not, but I do think that the laws as they exist on the books and have existed for the last 100 years for juveniles are definitely too lax. They are not stringent enough. They need to be updated. They need to address the mores and values as they exist now. I mean, 100 years ago, I mean the worst thing that a kid might get caught for and sanctioned for was stealing a horse. Now you have kids going into schools with semiautomatic weapons and taking out whole classrooms and teachers. We don't want that, and I think that what we're trying to address here and what everybody's saying is basically the same. We need to address the problem.
STEVE DRIZIN: That's not true.
JAMES BACKSTROM: No, that's not true. And-
STEVE DRIZIN: It's not true.
JAMES BACKSTROM: We're not-
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Drizin, all right, let Mr. Drizin back in here-
STEVE DRIZIN: I don't want to be said that I'm saying the same thing. I couldn't disagree more with Ms. Collier. Let's focus on the fact that what we're dealing with right now is a 7 and an 8 year old. Before we jump-
LINDA COLLIER: Are you saying we need-
MARGARET WARNER: I think Mr. Drizin-I think she's more talking about the case in Jonesboro, where there were 12 and 13 or now 12 and 14.
Is an 11 year-old competent to stand trial?
STEVE DRIZIN: They were 11 and 13. And even the case of an 11 year old Mr. Steinberg, who is a child and adolescent developmental psychiatrist, I think he would tell you that even an 11 year old there are serious questions about whether or not they're competent to stand trial and able to form the intent necessary to commit these crimes.
LAWRENCE STEINBERG: That's absolutely true. And in addition to that, there's another issue that's not being spoken about. And that is that if you look at non-gun-related violence, there has been no change over the past 50 years in the rates of non-gun-related violence by kids. Kids have always gotten angry at their classmates who have snubbed them. They've always gotten angry at teachers who didn't have access to assault rifles, and that is the big difference between the picture today and the picture several decades ago. Kids haven't changed at all. What has changed is the nature of the weapons that they have available to them.
STEVE DRIZIN: Can I raise one point?
MARGARET WARNER: Yes.
STEVE DRIZIN: And that is that I think what we should be focusing on in this case is the decision of the prosecutors to charge these kids with first degree murder. Seven and 8 year olds for hundreds of years in this country-it is presumed that they can't even form the criminal intent necessary to commit first degree murder or any crimes. And before you jump the gun to charge these children with first degree murder, I think you need to get people like Larry Steinberg and other developmental psychiatrists and psychologists involved to see whether or not these kids can even fathom the consequences of their actions. You should get these evaluations done before you jump the gun and make this the lowest aged first degree murder case in the United States, because it very well might not be and should not be a first degree murder case.
Prosecuting a seven year-old.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Mr. Backstrom, address that. If you had been given this case, as awful as that prospect is, would you have proceeded this way, or do you agree with Mr. Drizin, that there's another way? I'm talking now about the seven and eight year olds.
JAMES BACKSTROM: Well, as I indicated earlier, I don't personally believe that 7 and 8 year olds should be prosecuted as adults. But they should be prosecuted, they should be held accountable for--these are very serious crimes-
STEVE DRIZIN: And I agree with that.
JAMES BACKSTROM: And they need to be investigated and dealt with appropriately. But I wouldn't prosecute those kids as adults. I would look, again, for some sort of middle ground approach, and I think we need to go back to our state legislatures and address this issue, because we're seeing these acts across this country as witnessed in Jonesboro and in the Chicago case, and there's been cases here in my home state, younger and younger kids committing violent crime, we need to make sure we have an adequate system set up, and I agree with one of the comments earlier about the importance of our juvenile justice system, taking on a new role, because for years it's focused mainly on rehabilitation and what's in the best interest of the child, and now it should focus more on protection of the public safety and some measure of punishment and accountability for these crimes.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Steinberg, what's your view on that about what the aim of this-is it punishment? Is it rehabilitation? Is it different than it is for adults? Should it be?
LAWRENCE STEINBERG: Well, it is unfortunately becoming more and more similar to what it is for adults. I mean, the only reason that you would prosecute a 7 or an 8 year old child is for retribution and in order to satisfy, you know, the public's outrage, because--
MARGARET WARNER: About an 11 and 13 year old, 11 and 13?
LAWRENCE STEINBERG: I think once you get to 13/14, you're going into a different stage of development. But I think below 14 it is very, very questionable. Clearly, prosecuting a 7 or an 8 year old child, it has no deterrent effect. It's not as if we want to send a message to first graders all over the United States that we're getting tough on crime. And holding a 7 year old accountable for what he has done is a very, very difficult thing to do, specifically because we're not sure that he really understood what he did in the first place. There are avenues within the juvenile justice system to provide for the rehabilitation of kids that have committed serious crimes. And I still believe that that's how we should proceed.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me let Ms. Collier in here. Ms. Collier, I think we're all agreed that with the 7 and 8 year old, probably something very different is called for, but take a look at the Jonesboro case. Do you think in a case like this, you're really aiming at punishment or rehabilitation?
Adding restorative justice to the mix.
LINDA COLLIER: Well, I think that, you know, I'm in line with what Mr. Backstrom has said about the blended sentences. I think juvenile court needs to retain its jurisdiction over them long past the age of 21 just to make sure that they have been rehabilitated, but also there is some other doctrine of law called restorative justice, and I think we're all losing sight of the fact that there are victims here, and I think that these children have to be made to understand that there are victims, and they should be made to make some kind of recompense or some kind of offer or something to the victims to show that they are sorry, I know Mitchell Johnson has given some apology or something in court today, but is that really enough, and I think that our juvenile justice system should incorporate some method of restorative justice in the entire program.
MARGARET WARNER: And Mr. Drizin, briefly, we're almost out of time, your view on rehabilitation versus punishment and whether it's different for say teenagers than adults.
STEVE DRIZIN: Well, it is and it should be. I mean, the juvenile court's premise is that children and adolescents, their personalities are not yet fixed, they're more amenable to rehabilitation, to adults, and we should do everything in our power to rehabilitate them before we move into adult court. But it's also premised on the notion that they need to be held accountable, and they do get held accountable in juvenile court. These children are going to be in state custody, more likely than not, till their 21st birthday. For a seven and eight year old that's three times his or her life span. That's an eternity for a seven and eight year old. They are already feeling the pressure of the justice system in ways that you can't imagine. They cried hysterically when they were locked up and taken away from their parents and more likely than not, though I hope this may not be the case, they're going to get removed from their parents and placed in a residential treatment facility that may even be out of state. That's severe punishment and does send a strong message to these kids. You don't need to be locking them up in adult prisons for 20, 30, 40 years to send that message.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Mr. Drizin, Mr. Steinberg, Ms. Collier, Mr. Backstrom, thank you all four very much.