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Is this justice?: A reform movement crumbles

Second of four parts

Monday, March 19, 2001

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

19th-century crusaders pushed for juvenile court; today, their work is coming undone

No one could be described as more responsible for the enactment of Pennsylvania's "adult time for adult crime" law than two North Side boys, Dorian Lamore and Phillip Foxx.

They were both 16 when they ordered a pizza on the night of Sept. 9, 1993. The boys robbed the delivery men and then shot both of them.

It was a crime that Gov. Tom Ridge would use to lobby for passage of a new law to get tough with juvenile offenders. As one pizza delivery driver died in his truck and a partner ran away, bleeding copiously, the two Pittsburgh 16--year-olds who shot them on a September night in 1993 calmly ate the pizza they had ordered. (Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette illustration)

Lamore and Fox fled, then feasted as one delivery man died in the driver's seat of a Chubby's Pizza truck and the other ran away, his blood drenching the sidewalk.

When newly elected Gov. Tom Ridge opened his special legislative session on crime in January 1995, he invoked the image of Lamore and Fox.

"It's not just the magnitude of crime that has people upset. It's crime's changing nature," said Ridge, who'd made "adult time for adult crime" a centerpiece of his election campaign. "It is the criminal's numb callousness, brazen and cold. Two teen-agers murder a pizza delivery man -- and then calmly sit down and eat the pizza he delivered."

The Legislature granted Ridge his wish later that year, passing "adult time" legislation that took effect in March 1996. Under it, children aged 15 and older charged with committing a second serious felony and those charged with committing a serious crime with a gun are sent directly to criminal court instead of juvenile court.

Pennsylvania's action was part of a counter-reformation that swept the country in the 1990s.

A century earlier, in 1899, Illinois had established the first juvenile court in the world. Other states quickly followed suit. It was a victory for reformers who had sought to rescue children from lives of crime and keep them out of adult jails, where they were often brutalized and sometimes killed.

By 1999, though, nearly every state in the nation had reversed some of those 19th century reforms by sending some teens to adult criminal court for trial and to adult prisons for punishment.

The counter-reformation was fueled by fear and a growing dissatisfaction with the juvenile court system. As juvenile crime rose rapidly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, so did the perception that juvenile court was a pushover, unable to control violent teens.

Before the new law was passed in Pennsylvania, only children charged with murder had been sent directly to adult criminal court.

That is one of the ironies of Ridge citing the pizza delivery crime in his crusade for an "adult time" law.

Foxx and Lamore were charged with murder, so they automatically went to the adult criminal system under the old law. By the time Ridge invoked their names, they'd already been sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 25 to 50 years, the maximum possible sentence short of the death penalty.

Violence in the 1800s

Murders by teen-agers hit frightening heights in the early 1990s. There was no question that something scary was happening.

Second of four parts

A new juvenile prison remains largely unused

A deal declined and a baby dead

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

Day Three
Punishment backfires under 'adult time'

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.



But horrific crimes by children weren't exclusive to the 20th century. They occurred even while the reformers of the 19th century pushed to have children removed from adult courts and prisons.

At least 10 children were executed in the 1800s for crimes committed before their 14th birthdays. One of them, James Guild, was 12 when he brutally murdered a 60-year-old grandmother in New Jersey.

Newspaper accounts said Guild played with mice in his cell as he awaited his execution and did not seem to comprehend his situation. He was hanged in Flemington, N.J., on Nov. 28, 1828. As the trap door collapsed beneath him, he shook off the black hood and managed to balance on his toes at the edge of the platform. The sheriff rushed back up the gallows steps to shove him to his death.

The reformers of the 1890s were not motivated so much by horrific execution stories like Guild's, but by the injuries and deaths of children housed in adult jails. Children were routinely abused and killed by their adult cellmates. And they were maimed or died while performing prison duties more suited to grown men.

Juries were so repulsed by the conditions in jails that they began acquitting youngsters who were clearly guilty to prevent their imprisonment, a practice called jury nullification.

Also, reformers believed the very immaturity that prevented 12-year-old James Guild from understanding what was happening to him also prevented children from being fully responsible for their criminal acts. Because of that, the reformers reasoned, children should be shielded from the sorts of punishments exacted on adults.

They wanted an alternative to prison for children, and they got it in 1899 when Illinois created the first juvenile court. It would deal with abused, neglected and delinquent children under the age of 16. It would try to rehabilitate them into useful citizens.

Delinquency, the reformers believed, was a condition that could be cured with attention to individual children's needs.

One of Chicago's first juvenile court jurists, Julian Mack, described the purpose this way: "The problem for determination by the judge is not has the boy or girl committed a specific wrong, but what is he, how has he become what he is and what had best be done in his interest and in the interest of the state to save him from a downward career."

Treating some as adults

Pennsylvania was among the first states to follow the lead of Illinois, setting up its juvenile court in 1903. By 1925, 46 states, three territories and Washington, D.C. had juvenile courts. And over the next 25 years, states typically expanded the courts' jurisdiction to 16- and 17-year-olds.

The establishment of juvenile courts did not mean, however, that children were never tried as adults.

All states had a method for transferring the most flagrant juvenile offenders to criminal court. It was reserved mainly for murderers like Foxx and Lamore and older delinquents who'd repeatedly committed violent crimes.

Most young offenders remained in the juvenile system, which tried to set them straight and then kept their convictions, called delinquency adjudications, a secret, to enhance their chances for jobs and productive futures.

In exchange for juvenile court's benevolence, children are denied some of the rights that are guaranteed to adults in criminal court. For example, children can be held without bail until their trials. States can deny children jury trials. And juvenile sentences don't have to be specific. A judge may send a child to reform school until the school says the youth has been reformed.

In the 1960s, though, lawyers for children began demanding more procedural rights in a series of appeals court challenges.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that a Washington D.C. judge had improperly sent a juvenile to adult court without conducting a hearing.

The court decided in what is called the Kent case that states could not deny children such due process rights just because youths were supposed to receive some sort of benefit from the juvenile court process.

Justice Abe Fortas even questioned whether juvenile courts were living up to their promise of benevolent protection for children, writing: "There is evidence, in fact, that there may be grounds for concern that the child receives the worst of both worlds: that he gets neither the [due process] protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children."

The year after that decision, the Supreme Court took the case of Gerald Gault. In 1964, when Gault was 15, he and a friend called a neighbor and asked, "Are your cherries ripe today?" and "Do you have big bombers?" Gault was convicted of making obscene phone calls, even though the victim did not appear and Gault did not have a lawyer. The judge sent him to reform school for a period not to exceed his 21st birthday -- potentially six years.

One sentence in the Supreme Court decision sums up its reaction: "Under our constitution the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court." Children, the court said, cannot be denied representation by lawyers or their constitutional right to confront witnesses.

These and other Supreme Court decisions resulted in conservatives arguing that there was no need for juvenile court if it had to operate as formally as adult criminal court.

Some liberals agreed that children would be better off in criminal court, though not for the same reasons as the conservatives. They said criminal court would guarantee due process rights that juvenile courts did not.

With both sides sniping away at the juvenile system, the reforms begun in the 1800s started to erode.

Congress, which controlled the court in Washington, D.C., responded to the Supreme Court ruling in the Kent case by automatically removing children from the D.C. juvenile court jurisdiction and moving them to the adult system if they were charged with specific crimes. That eliminated the need for a juvenile court judge to make the decision.

By 1975, four states had done the same thing, and by 1980, another five had. The trend continued through the 1990s, accelerated by increasing reports of horrendous crimes by young people.

'We had to try something different'

Among them was one infamous incident in Pennsylvania: In 1989, a 9-year-old Monroe County boy fatally shot a 7-year-old neighbor as she rode on a snowmobile. Another was in Illinois: In 1994, two pre-teen boys in Chicago dropped a 5-year-old to his death from a 14th-floor window.

At the same time, gang members killed rivals and innocents in drive-by shootings.

At its height in 1994, the juvenile crime wave looked like a bloodbath. "The perception was that unless something was done, we would have a disaster," said Barry McCarthy, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and former Shuman Juvenile Detention Center board member. "We had kids going around shooting people and juvenile court did not hold a threat to them. It looked like what we were doing was not working. There was no fear and no accountability and no rehabilitation. We said we had to try something different here."

The result was Pennsylvania's "adult time" law passed in 1995, which put the state in a group of 45 that amended laws between 1992 and 1997 to send more children to criminal court and prison.

The message, said Melissa Sickmund, a senior researcher for the National Center for Juvenile Justice, was that rehabilitation was out; retribution was in.

Still, the law that Ridge signed is among the more moderate in the nation.

The children affected are 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds, not the 13-year-olds sent to adult courts by some states. The crimes for which children may be tried as adults are limited, serious and specific. The law also gives the children a chance to ask judges to transfer their cases back to juvenile court, which some states don't allow.

In addition, Ridge built a $71-million, 500-bed prison for the teens convicted in adult criminal court. The State Correctional Institution Pine Grove in Indiana County, which opened in January, is designed to separate young offenders from adult criminals and provide youths with education, counseling and drug and alcohol treatment based on the Delaware County reform school Glenn Mills.

Ridge said it is in teens' best interests to be sent to this hybrid reform school/prison because "to send them back to the streets without this confinement and intense rehabilitation means they have no chance at all."

In addition, Ridge has invested tens of millions of dollars in programs to prevent children from getting to criminal court. Over the past three years, he has spent $28 million for school-based juvenile probation officers, who monitor delinquents' behavior daily, and proposed an additional $15.6 million for this year. And he has put more than $10 million in a program he created -- the Children's Partnership -- to sponsor delinquency prevention efforts.

Six years after his "adult time for adult crime" campaign, the governor summarized his juvenile justice approach by saying "I wanted to be tough, but I wanted to be smart."

But Ridge and others who pushed for tougher treatment of juveniles are now facing a backlash.

Some of the nation's leading child advocacy groups have formed an organization called Building Blocks for Youth to work for "a fair and effective youth justice system."

In a series of reports issued in the past year, Building Blocks has questioned the value of "adult time" laws because of the high rate of recidivism by youths who have been jailed with adults and because a disproportionate number of youths charged as adults are black.

Just last month, two major national reports, one from the National Research Council and the other from a group of researchers supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, both questioned the increased use of adult courts for children.

The Research Council report stressed that children are not simply mini-adults. Their physical, emotional and cognitive development is incomplete. They are more willing to take risks and less able to consider consequences. The report raised the question of whether it was fair, then, to hold children accountable in the same way society does adults.

That sounds a lot like the arguments made by reformers in the 1800s.

Despite these criticisms, though, reversal of the adult time laws is unlikely, supporters of juvenile court say.

Marsha Levick, legal director of the Juvenile Law Center, a public interest firm in Philadelphia, said in the current political climate, there's no strong impetus to abandon "adult time" laws:

"At the turn of the century, there was a social reform movement in this country. The creation of juvenile court was a piece of that. We do not live now in a time of social reform. There is not a broad progressive movement sweeping the country."

Tomorrow: When teens go to adult jails, it's a "college for criminals."

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