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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Issues | September 2009 

When Children Kill, US Punishment Varies
email this pageprint this pageemail usJoe Lambe - The Kansas City Star
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September 15, 2009

The United States leads the world in sending young people to adult prisons. (publik16/Flickr)
A Kansas City, Kan., girl charged with murder at age 13 faces adult court and many years in prison.

A boy who was 13 when he killed a man last year will stay in the juvenile system and could be released when he is 22, a Wyandotte County judge ruled early this month.

Both cases illustrate how children who commit heinous crimes are testing the boundaries of the justice system.

After murders committed by juveniles spiked in the early 1990s, states toughened laws, making the United States the harshest nation in world in the legal punishment of children, according to a recent study. However, the number of children who killed declined in the late '90s and has largely held steady this decade, leading some to question the practice of tougher sentencing.

"Some states are starting to recognize that kids can be treated as kids," said Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of a study, "From Time Out to Hard Time."

In 22 states, children as young as 7 still can be tried as adults. There is no age limit in Missouri, but it is 10 in Kansas. As of June, juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole in seven states, including Kansas. That makes the United States the only nation in the world where juveniles can be sentenced to life without parole, the study reported.

All children who offend at age 12 or younger should be put into juvenile care, the Texas study contends. And it found that when they are put in adult prisons, juvenile offenders are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and 36 times more likely to commit suicide.

Laurence Steinberg, author of "Rethinking Juvenile Justice" and a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, believes that a 13-year-old is too young to be charged as an adult.

"You're exposing kids to adult sanctions for something they did as a kid," he said, "but no prosecutor is going to be able to run on the platform of 'I gave somebody a break.'"

Weighing the Facts

In the Wyandotte County cases, the similar situations are seemingly headed toward different outcomes.

Early this month, defense attorney Kiann McBratney successfully argued that Antwuan Taylor, the Kansas City, Kan., boy who killed last year at age 13, should not be tried as an adult and instead should stay in the juvenile system.

But McBratney, other prosecutors and some defense attorneys do support adult sentences for some children, saying society needs protection from them.

"There are kids out there who function like adults and can kill people in cold blood," she said.

Robbin Wasson, the prosecutor in the Taylor case, said, "We don't want to be prosecuting 13-year-olds willy-nilly as adults," noting that decisions on juvenile offenders are made on a case-by-case basis.

The other juvenile charged in Wyandotte County last year with killing at age 13 was Keaira Brown, who this year became the youngest person ever sent to adult court there.

She allegedly shot 16-year-old Scott Sappington to death after an apparent botched carjacking attempt.

The victim's grandmother, Joyce Sappington, said she had mixed emotions about the ruling, but children killing children "has got to stop. If nobody sends a message, it will never stop."

Nationwide from 1985 to 2004, the study reports, judges transferred 961 children age 13 or younger to adult courts. That does not count children from states that have automatic transfer laws for crimes such as murder or states that allow prosecutors to directly file cases in adult court.

"You can have a teen who kills and goes automatically into the adult system and life without parole," Deitch said. "That's incomprehensible to me."

Science and Sentencing

Researchers have discovered that the section of the brain related to impulse control does not fully develop until the mid-20s, but that finding doesn't necessarily help in the legal debate.

Some say it means children grow and change - what they are is not what they will become. Others say it means they are out of control and deadly.

The Supreme Court mentioned those brain studies in a 2005 Missouri case when it ruled that those younger than 18 when they killed could not be executed. That ruling took 72 people off death rows.

The ruling said children change, are less mature than adults, are more influenced by peers and are less to blame.

"Even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile," the court said, "is not evidence of irretrievably depraved character."

In the Taylor case in Wyandotte County, the boy was influenced by a 21-year-old woman who gave him a gun and suggested he kill someone. She drove him and picked out a victim, and Taylor shot Charles McElroy six times.

Barry Feld, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said of the Taylor case and the woman's influence: "It is the absolute paradigm of what the Supreme Court was talking about."

Thirteen is too young for adult prosecution, he said, but for older children, he has raised questions about whether juvenile court is appropriate.

A "youth discount" is a sentencing method that Feld advocates. "A 14-year-old gets 25 percent of the going rate for the same crime by an adult, a 16-year-old gets about 50 percent," he said.

Deitch praised another approach sometimes used by Kansas, Missouri and 25 other states. The laws generally allow a judge to combine a juvenile sentence with a further adult sentence if the offender fails in the juvenile system.

Wyandotte County District Judge Wes Griffin imposed the Kansas version of that approach in the Taylor case. Kansas officials say it has been rarely used - only in seven cases of 348 juveniles sent to the state juvenile system last year.

Missouri also rarely uses its version but has had good success, officials said. From 1999 to 2006, they said, 36 people were released after serving their juvenile time. Only six committed other crimes.

Atharene McElroy, mother of the victim in the Taylor case, is satisfied that her son's killer is staying in juvenile court.

"He's just a young, troubled boy," she said, but he is dangerous and needs to be off the streets while he matures.

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