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Is this justice? Punishment backfires under 'adult time'

Third of four parts

Tuesday, March 20, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For his preliminary hearing, Jamar R. pulled his hair into two pigtails that hung over his ears like horns. Even in shackles, he inspired fear.

After teen-ager Jason T. robbed a jitney driver at gunpoint and forced him into the trunk of the car, he found out it wouldn't start. Enraged, he opened the trunk to wreak vengeance on the driver -- when the driver pulled out a weapon of his own and shot Jason in the stomach. (Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette illustration)

He was only four months into his 17th year, but was facing a preliminary hearing as an adult because under a new state law, the kind of crime he'd been charged with committing -- a carjacking with a gun -- automatically put him in the adult criminal court system.

The victim testified that he was stopped at an intersection on Wilner Drive in East Hills on Sun., Dec., 15, 1996, just after church, when Jamar ran up to the car and pointed a pistol at him. Jamar smacked him in the head with the gun several times, then ordered him out. And just like that, his 1992 Chevrolet Lumina was gone.

Jamar was the kind of teen Pennsylvania lawmakers had in mind when they passed legislation in 1995 to require youths 15 and older who were charged with certain violent crimes to be treated as adults. The lawmakers wanted an end to serious crime by teen-agers, and they thought the juvenile courts and reform schools were too lenient to turn around tough guys like Jamar.

Adult criminal court, they believed, would impose tougher punishments.

Third of four parts

Reform vs. relapse: Two cases, two different outcomes

For a crime with a gun, just probation

Day One
The 'adult time' law for juveniles hasn't fulfilled its backers' promises

Day Two
A reform movement crumbles

Day Four
The 'adult-time' law burdens children already handicapped by poor parenting

The Post-Gazette does not usually withhold the identities of juveniles accused of crimes but has made an exception for these stories.

In order to obtain some information about these teens that is normally confidential, the Post-Gazette agreed not to disclose their full identities. For that reason, and because those whose cases were transferred to the juvenile system do not have criminal records for those offenses, the newspaper is using only first names and last initials of those whose stories are told.



The concept was simple. If a teen is bad, he's punished. If he's worse, he's disciplined more harshly. Then he'll get the point and stop the bad behavior. It works at home. It should work in the justice system.

The problem is, it hasn't worked, and there are two fundamental reasons why.

The first is that in Pennsylvania, most teens sentenced as adults end up getting relatively short prison sentences. In the first year of the "adult time" law in Allegheny County, the median time served by teens convicted as adults was 11 1/2 months -- a sharp contrast to the five years of prison time that advocates of the law had promised.

The second reason "adult time" hasn't worked is that teens sent to adult lockups are more likely to commit new crimes when they get out than teens sent to juvenile reform schools, where they get education and counseling.

"It's counterintuitive to say that punishment backfires. It's hard to get the public to understand," said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia University who conducted two studies showing that prison produces higher recidivism -- a term that means committing new crimes -- than reform school does.

Some of the studies showing the paradoxical effect of more severe punishment were available when Pennsylvania passed its "adult time" law in 1995.

State Sen. Allen G. Kukovich, D-Manor, cited them when he opposed the legislation. The adult time policy "hurts public safety. But the politicians who passed it prefer the perception that they're being tough on crime," he said.

No one listened to his warnings. They couldn't afford to, he said, because "they don't want to be accused of being soft on crime. They do not want an opponent to come out and say, 'Look at this horrible crime by this 14-year-old, and my opponent voted to keep him in the juvenile system.'"

No juvenile time

Jamar was no 14-year-old. He was only a handful of months away from being an official adult -- 18 years old -- by March 1997, when he got the opportunity to ask a judge to move his case to juvenile court.

Nearly every state in the nation has passed legislation like Pennsylvania's in the past 10 years, making it easier to try juveniles in criminal court, but not all of them give the youths the opportunity to get back to juvenile court. Pennsylvania lists criteria for the judge to consider in making the decision, including the crime's impact on the victim and the community, and the likelihood the teen will be rehabilitated.

The victim told Judge Timothy O'Reilly that he'd been traumatized. "I have trouble sleeping at night. I am nervous. I shake now. My nerves are really bad. I stay in the house and I don't come out at all."

But Jamar's juvenile probation officer, Rodney Jackson, had mixed feelings about giving up on the youth. A probation supervisor had ordered Jackson to recommend against moving Jamar's case to juvenile court, but Jackson wasn't sure that was right.

He told the court that Jamar had been convicted as a juvenile of disorderly conduct when he was 13 and simple assault and theft when he was 15. In the first case, he'd been placed on probation and ordered to perform 40 hours of community service, which he did. In the second case, he was sent to an after-school and weekend program, and did well. But after that program, he violated his probation by remaining out after curfew. So he was sent to another after-school and weekend program. He did not do well there.

The second after-school program reported that Jamar had poor behavior, questioned orders from staff, used gang language and was an active gang wannabe.

Still, Jackson said, Jamar had enrolled himself in an alternative high school, and he'd never had the benefit of a residential juvenile reform school. "I think Jamar can be helped," he told the judge.

The assistant district attorney, Ron Tyszkiewicz, didn't buy it. He noted that Jamar had been expelled from the alternative school for failure to attend. And he'd been kicked out of two other schools.

For the judge, it came down to the seriousness of the allegation and Jamar's age. The juvenile system could keep him until he was 21. That would be a little more than three years at a secure reform school such as the Youth Development Center at New Castle. "It is going to take more than three years at New Castle to straighten this kid out," O'Reilly said.

He refused to move the case to juvenile court.

Despite O'Reilly's concerns, Columbia professor Fagan has found that it's not the length of a sentence that's important, but where it's served.

If a judge really wants to reduce a teen's chances of committing new crimes, he should send him to reform school, his research has found. In one of his studies, he learned that no matter how long the sentence given in criminal court, youths who committed similar crimes who were tried in juvenile court were less likely to re-offend.

Fagan compared 800 youths charged with burglary and robbery in New York, where all the 15- and 16-year-olds were tried in criminal court, and New Jersey, where they went to juvenile court. There was not much difference in the recidivism of the burglars, who were non-violent offenders. But there was a significant increase in recidivism by the more serious offenders, those who had committed robberies.

The robbers sent to juvenile court in New Jersey were far less likely to commit a new crime, and when they did, it was after a significantly longer period.

Fagan, a professor of law and public health at Columbia University, is one of several researchers who have reached the same conclusion: When compared to youths tried in juvenile court for similar crimes, teens sent to criminal court re-offend more quickly, do so more often, and commit more serious new crimes.

Another is David Myers, a criminology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He compared the recidivism of 557 Pennsylvania teens matched for age, past criminal record, type of weapon used in the crime and several other factors.

He found recidivism consistently and substantially worse among the youths whose cases were tried in criminal court. They were more likely to be re-arrested and more likely to be charged with violent felonies. They also re-offended more quickly. Like Fagan, he found this was true even though the youths tried in criminal court were more likely to be jailed, and were jailed for longer periods than those tried in juvenile court.

The same pattern showed up among the youths charged as adults in Allegheny County in the first year of the new law. Of the teens transferred to juvenile court, 45 percent committed new crimes. Of those who remained in criminal court, and later got out of jail, 68 percent committed new crimes. Those tried in criminal court also committed more serious and more frequent new crimes.

Short sentences

Jamar's experience could be an example in any one of the studies showing higher recidivism for youths tried in criminal court.

When O'Reilly refused to move his case to juvenile court, Jamar was sent back to the Allegheny County Jail to await trial. When criminal court failed to try him within six months, his bond was reduced to $1 and he was freed. Two months later -- before he ever got to trial -- he was charged with possession of crack.

It was Aug. 9, 1997, 14 days short of Jamar's 18th birthday. Because he was still a juvenile and because crack possession by a youth isn't considered an "adult crime," he was sent to Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.

He went to trial three months later on the carjacking. In exchange for a guilty plea, he got 11 months and 15 days in the county jail and five years' probation. He'd already served six months of that sentence while awaiting trial, so he was released from jail on March 26, 1998, five months after his trial.

Jamar's 11 1/2-month "adult time" sentence was ironic, since it was less than a third of what O'Reilly would have given Jamar in the juvenile system, and Jamar was only in the adult criminal system because O'Reilly had wanted an even tougher punishment than the juvenile courts could deliver.

But Jamar's sentence actually was typical of what happens with younger criminals tried in the adult justice system.

The proof of that can be seen in the Pennsylvania prison population. Only sentences longer than two years are served in Pennsylvania's penitentiaries. Shorter terms are served where Jamar did his time -- county jails. There are no more juveniles in state prisons today than there were in 1995 before the "adult time" law, which means most teens tried as adults are getting jail terms -- sentences of less than two years.

Studies have shown similar results in other states. For example, in Florida, which adjudicates more children in criminal court than any other state, nearly 40 percent of the juveniles tried in adult court in 1995 received sentences of less than one year. Only 15 percent got more than five years.

In jail, in jeopardy

Regardless of whether young offenders serve a short sentence in a county jail or a long term in a state prison, they're in jeopardy when incarcerated with adults.

Studies, including one by Fagan, have shown that teens in the adult system are much more likely to be victims of violence and sexual assaults by both inmates and guards.

In addition, jails teach teens how to be violent.

"During the years when the transition from adolescence to adulthood occurs," Fagan wrote, "when social skills and cues are learned, these youth will know little else other than the institutional world. The social rules and norms learned are those that prevail in the institution, including the reciprocal cycle of victimization and retaliation."

"The child is making his transition into adulthood under the care and supervision of adult felons. Is it surprising that he re-offends?" Fagan asked.

In another study, criminology professor Donna Bishop of Northeastern University discovered that teens in prison believe society has given up on them, that they feel "they are a lost cause." Compared to teens in reform schools, she found those in prison are more likely to predict they'll commit new crimes when they get out.

IUP's Myers said another reason for the higher recidivism by teens sent to prison is that their adult criminal records keep them from getting jobs and from admission to some schools, both of which tend to push them toward committing new crimes to make money.

It's impossible to know whether Jamar would have been rescued by the juvenile system. But he certainly didn't reform under the adult system.

A week after his adult trial on the carjacking, Jamar was back in juvenile court on his crack possession charge. The judge decided Jamar's history was sufficient reason to move the crack charge to adult criminal court, too.

Pleading to that charge in criminal court didn't cost Jamar any more jail time.

He got one year's probation.

Two months later, on July 27, 1998, he stole a 1984 Monte Carlo from a Pittsburgh dealership and fled from police. He pleaded guilty in the case on Jan. 1, 1999, and got six months in the county jail.

That conviction constituted a probation violation, however, and the judge who'd given him only 11 1/2 months for the carjacking re-sentenced him to three to 10 years in the state prison system.

He is now at the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield. He could be released as early as May 9.

Fagan says Jamar's new crime after serving his "adult time" was sadly predictable.

"This policy is based on moral vengeance, not utilitarian principals. But vengeance comes with a price -- public safety is compromised."

Tomorrow: Teens charged as adults often have troubled families.

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