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photo of a hallway at juvenile hall Should teenagers who commit violent or serious crimes be tried as juveniles or adults? Can we rehabilitate these young people to prevent future criminal behavior?

With almost unprecedented access to juvenile court proceedings--which are usually closed to the public and rarely seen on television--"Juvenile Justice" follows four youth offenders through the Santa Clara County, California juvenile courts, observing how the criminal justice system treats their cases and determines their fates. Filmed over 15 months, this report also talks with the judges, case workers, prosecutors and families of the young teens as well as some of those who were their victims.

We meet Manny, 17, charged with the attempted murder of a pregnant woman and her family; José, a 15-year-old gang member sentenced to Juvenile Hall for his role in the beating death of another teen; Shawn, a middle-class white teen who pleaded guilty to trying to murder his father; and Marquese, an African-American teen who has seven felonies on his record, all theft related.

"While their crimes are different and they come from diverse backgrounds, these four teens are all united by the fact that they each are at a crossroads in the system," says FRONTLINE producer Janet Tobias. "One road leads to rehabilitation in the juvenile system; the other leads to punishment in the adult system."

In the past decade, nearly every state in the union has passed laws or amended legislation to make it easier to prosecute and sentence children as adults. Proponents of these tougher policies say they're fed up with a system that offers little more than a slap on the wrist to children who commit serious crimes. Some even question whether repeated attempts to rehabilitate habitual youth offenders is serving the interests of overall justice.

But others aren't so sure. FRONTLINE interviews juvenile court judges and attorneys, who, although disagreeing on some points, do agree that decisions about which kids to treat as kids and which should be sent to adult court are very difficult.

Former public defender Bridgett Jones is one who believes the system needs to distinguish between juvenile and adult offenders. "Children are not little adults," she says. "They think differently. They respond and react to things differently than adults do...So why should the consequences be the same as for an adult?"

California prosecutor David Soares disagrees. "The voters in this state and the legislature have decided that in fact there are many 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds who are as intellectually and criminally sophisticated as adult offenders," he says. "And the decisions that have been made by our lawmakers and by the voters are that we look at their actions and [determine] are they engaging in the actions of an adult."

At issue is whether the juvenile justice system has been--or even can be--successful in rehabilitating young criminals. And if they can be rehabilitated, will it be enough to regain society's trust? It's a question even some youth offenders have trouble answering.

"Even if I want to change, people are still gonna look at me like I'm a gangster," says Manny, the teen charged with attempted murder.

Therein lies the problem, says public defender Jones says. "The only thing that's going to work with kids like [these] is a willingness of the community to redeem them and saying, 'Look, your life's not over, there's still hope for you.'"

manny · shawn · marquese · jose
from both sides of the bench · facts & stats · related report: little criminals
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