The New York Times, February 27, 2000
Justice: Youth Imprisonment Doubles
By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of criminals under 18 serving time in adult prisons more than doubled between 1985 and 1997 as states prosecuted steadily more young people as adults.
By 1997, 7,400 youths 17 or younger were committed to adult prisons on conviction in either juvenile or adult courts. That's more than twice the 3,400 young people sent to the nation's state prisons in 1985, a new Justice Department report shows.
Seven in 10 young offenders who received adult punishment in 1997, the latest year state prison records were available, were convicted for violent offenses. Of that total, 37 percent were jailed for robbery, 13 percent for murder and 13 percent for aggravated assault, according to the report released Sunday.
Researchers say the young inmates by no means are overrunning the prisons' adult population of 2 million, and just 5 percent of all young offenders punished in this country serve sentences in adult facilities. But data suggest that today's violent young offenders are more likely to do prison time than in years past.
That's partly because of an increasing number of state laws that take away their legal status as minors and make them more accountable, researchers say. The crackdown, fueled in part by high-profile school violence, has placed children as young as 11 on trial in criminal courts.
``Many states have increased the number of provisions that allow juveniles to be handled in the adult system,'' said report author Kevin J. Strom, a researcher with the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Based on state prison records reported annually to the Justice Department, the report notes that while 37 states and the District of Columbia consider people 18 adults for criminal purposes, most also allow ``certain categories of offenders under 18 to be incarcerated in adult prisons and housed with older inmates.''
The inmate data do not specify whether young offenders are convicted in juvenile or adult courts, but Strom said it is known that a small percentage go from the juvenile courts to adult incarceration.
The Justice Department study comes amid debate over the merits of meting out adult time for crimes committed by youth. Californians will vote March 7 on a ballot proposal that would make it easier to charge juveniles as young as 14 as adults for serious crimes.
``By virtue of their rarity, school shootings have helped create a distorted picture about who young people are and the dangers that they pose to the rest of us,'' said Eric Sterling, president of the Washington-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.
Historically, young offenders' fates were mostly decided by juvenile judges. But after a spate of drug-gang violence and school shootings in the last decade, state lawmakers decided adult prisons could more effectively deal with violent or chronic youth offenders.
Since 1992, 30 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that in certain instances send kids directly to criminal court. Through 1998, despite a 50 percent drop in the juvenile murder arrest rate, states gave criminal prosecutors increased power to bypass the century-old juvenile system or chipped away at options juvenile judges had for trying youth cases.
Youngsters' yearly admissions to prison climbed steadily between 1986 and 1995, then leveled off, the report said. Over the years, more youths were imprisoned relative to the number arrested. In 1997, 33 youths were sent to prison for every 1,000 arrests for violent crimes, up from the 18 imprisoned per 1,000 in 1985.
``There's some justification for public frustration with the juvenile system,'' said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank opposed to mandatory sentencing. ``But sending them to the adult system en masse is no solution. It's hardly a resounding success for the people it's got.''