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Reform vs. relapse: Two cases, two different outcomes

Tuesday, March 20, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

About a year after Pennsylvania began "adult time for adult crime," a 16-year-old stood before a juvenile court judge and begged for the magisterial magic that would transform him back into a boy.

The teen-ager, Michael K., was charged with trying to shoot a security guard and a student in front of Wilkinsburg High School, which, under the new law, made him a man for the purposes of trial and sentencing.

The law did, however, give Michael a chance to ask a judge to transfer his case from adult criminal court to juvenile court.

And on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 1997, Michael did that. He confessed his worst fear: "In the adult system, I could get life in prison or a death sentence."

How wrong he was.

For Michael, adult time for adult crime turned out to be six months in the county jail. Though it was less time than that served by most juveniles tried in the adult system, it wasn't a lot less.

The median time served by children tried as adults in Allegheny County in the first year of the "adult time" law was 11 1/2 months. Prison statistics and a statewide study show that those short sentences were not an anomaly.

Legislators had argued that sending violent adolescents to criminal court would ensure proper punishment because juvenile court could only hold youths in reform schools for four years, or until they turned 21, whichever was less. Criminal court, they said, had no such limitations.

But critics now ask, if juveniles aren't getting terms of more than four years in criminal court, what is the point of sending them to a system that denies them the benefits of reform school?

An advantage of money

Teens charged under the new law whose cases were transferred to juvenile court served less time on average than those who stayed in the adult system -- the median juvenile sentence was six months.

But teens who had fired weapons or seriously injured victims got sentences much longer than the median from juvenile court judges.

One of them was Jason T.

Like Michael, he was 16 when he committed his crime.

Jason pointed a .22-caliber pistol at the head of a 67-year-old jitney driver, grabbed his money and keys, forced him into the trunk, then threatened to kill him because the car wouldn't start.

When Jason opened the trunk, gun in hand, the jitney driver pulled own his own .38 and shot Jason in the stomach. Jason fired back, but like Michael, he missed.

Jason asked Common Pleas Judge Timothy O'Reilly to transfer his case to juvenile court just a few hours before Michael did.

Though their crimes were similar and neither boy had a juvenile record, O'Reilly agreed to transfer Jason's case, but not Michael's. That was partly because Jason's family could afford a private attorney, as well as a psychiatrist and psychologist who testified that Jason was mildly mentally retarded, immature and a follower who would benefit from reform school role models.

Michael was represented by a public defender whose office, at that time, had no money for such experts.

Though Jason won the transfer to juvenile court, he served a sentence six times longer than Michael's criminal court term. Jason spent 38 months in the state's highest security reform schools, the kind landscaped with chain link fences and razor wire.

The criminal court legacy

Though their sentences fell on the extremes -- Jason's long for juvenile court and Michael's short for criminal court -- their experiences afterward were typical.

Jason has stayed out of trouble.

Michael has not.

Michael's relapse was stunningly quick. It came the day after his trial for the Wilkinsburg shooting. He was freed because he'd pleaded guilty in exchange for the six months he'd already served in jail and three years' probation.

He confronted two boys on Park Avenue in Wilkinsburg. He repeatedly punched one in the face and took his leather coat.

The victim didn't know Michael's name, but when he told school officials about the incident, someone suggested it was "Psycho," which was Michael's street name.

Michael pleaded guilty to that robbery and was sentenced to a year in the county jail. But, before he got out, the judge from the shooting case decided Michael's second offense had violated his probation, so she sent him to prison for two more years.

Michael's mother, who adopted him and his brother when they were little boys, thinks his second offense might not have happened if O'Reilly had moved his original case to juvenile court and sent him to reform school.

"I believe he would have turned out better. He didn't get any better by going to jail. He got worse." In fact, if Michael had been tried in juvenile court and sentenced to the same term Jason was, he'd have been in reform school when the second offense occurred.

Far from excusing Michael's behavior, his mother said he deserved punishment.

But, she said, "jail was too much. They need to be giving us a helping hand with our sons when we are trying our best. They should send them to boot camp or a reform school where there are counselors who will sit with them one-on-one. They should at least have given him a chance."

She still has high hopes for her son, who was freed on parole Jan. 9. She believes he's been chastened and will return to school and get a job.

Mark Schindler, staff attorney for the Youth Law Center in Washington D.C., is less optimistic. He said Michael's experience in the justice system "was a recipe for creating a career criminal."

Mix a teen with hardened adult criminals in a jail for six months, then turn him out at age 17 onto the street with a criminal record and no assistance to reintegrate into the community, and he is likely to commit a new offense and end up back in jail with adults.

Under those circumstances, "you get an angry, frustrated kid," Schindler said. "What is the future for that kid?

"The prognosis is not good."



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