Pubdate: Sun, 10 Sep 2000
Source: The New York Times Magazine (NY)
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company
Author: Margaret Talbot


The juvenile justice system, founded on the idea that childhood is a
distinct stage of life, is being dismantled, with more and more teenagers
imprisoned alongside adults. The tough-on-crime crowd has won, but what
kind of society has been left behind?

JEFF Stackhouse, who turned 15 this Alexsummer, in the Madison Street Jail
in StacPhoenix. was Photograph by Katy Grannan 3 years old, good luck
entered his life for the first and maybe the last time. Abandoned as a
2-week-old infant by a schizophrenic mother, Jeff had lived by then in
eight different foster homes. But in 1988, he was taken in by a woman who
quickly made up her mind to love him and who adopted him two years later.
The fact that Jeff came to her "with all his worldly possessions in one
very small box" and called every adult female Mommy "not only broke but
stole my heart," his adoptive mother, Leslie Stackhouse, says now. Leslie
and her then husband, Norman, adopted two more "special needs" children, a
girl named Christin and her brother, Casey, who had been taken away from
abusive parents when they were toddlers. Leslie's training as a foster
parent helped her to go slowly with all three, giving them time to trust
her. Though Jeff was withdrawn at first, prone to banging his head against
the wall and biting himself, he grew into a happy little boy with a
powerful loyalty to his mother.

By the time he hit 14, though, Jeff was getting into the kind of scrapes
that keep a mother up at night. Joe Wilson, a family friend who ran a
driving school in town, thought Jeff was a good kid who was being picked on
because he was small for his age. "I think he was trying to defend himself
in a pretty tough neighborhood," Wilson says. Jeff and his friends in
Glendale, a working-class Phoenix suburb of low-slung houses, wide
boulevards and scruffy palm trees, sneaked out one hot summer evening after
curfew to search for loose change in unlocked cars. Jeff was caught and
went through counseling in a juvenile crime deterrence program. A couple of
months later, he and another friend stole a bike, which Jeff rode to school
and returned later that day.

Then one night, after an argument with his mom, he stalked off down the
street. When Leslie caught up with him, he shoved her. His 12-year-old
sister was worried enough to call the police, who arrested Jeff for
assault, and Leslie figured, "O.K., maybe this isn't so bad, maybe he'll
learn a lesson." What Leslie really hoped was that some official would
figure out a way to get her son psychological help. Jeff was troubled, she
knew -- school psychologists told her he had attention-deficit disorder and
depression, and though he loved to read, he struggled in school. But
Leslie, who works as a school bus driver, had never been able to afford a
thorough evaluation for him.

By that time, Jeff is a was under a kind of house arrest and imposed by the
juvenile court. He wasn't supposed to leave home alone except to attend
school. But on Feb. 23 of this year, he was arrested again. He and three
other neighborhood kids his age had been "play boxing," as the police
report termed it, at the school bus stop, and Jeff had given one of the
boys a bloody lip. After the fight, the boy and his pals set out for Jeff's
house, where they called him out on the lawn, got him in a headlock and
punched him. Jeff ran into the house, found an unloaded antique shotgun
that his mother kept in her closet and brought it out to wave at the other
kids, shouting, "Get off my property!" The three boys headed home in a
hurry. No one was hurt, and two of the three did not even want to press

But Jeff Stackhouse's worst luck so far was to have fallen afoul of the law
at this particular moment in American judicial history, a moment when the
century-old notion of children and adolescents as less culpable and more
amenable to rehabilitation than adults has been giving way to an altogether
different view. In this new and far harsher view, child criminals are
virtually indistinguishable from adult criminals: they are just as capable
of forming criminal intent, just as morally responsible, just as autonomous
in their actions. Since 1992, 45 states, including Arizona, have passed or
amended legislation making it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults.
While judges in the juvenile system have always had the authority to send
particularly brutal or chronic young offenders into the adult system, state
legislatures have been making it easier for less serious wrongdoers to meet
the same fate. Because of changes over the last decade, 15 states now grant
prosecutors the sole discretion to transfer juveniles into adult court for
certain categories of offenses. Twenty-eight states have statutes that
automatically remove youths charged with particular crimes -- many of them
violent crimes, but some property and drug offenses as well -- from the
jurisdiction of the juvenile system. Though many states allow only children
14 and older to be prosecuted as adults, others have set younger minimum
ages -- 10 in Vermont and Kansas -- or no lower limit at all.

While these reforms were often motivated by such nightmarish cases as the
school massacres in Jonesboro, Ark., or Littleton, Colo., they have cast a
much wider net. Though 66 percent of the juveniles prosecuted as adults in
1994 were charged with violent offenses, according to a Bureau of Justice
Statistics report, the remaining 34 percent were charged with property
offenses, like burglary and theft, or with drug or public nuisance
offenses. As a result, the number of youths under 18 held in adult prisons,
and in many cases mixed in with adult criminals, has doubled in the last 10
years or so, from 3,400 in 1985 to 7,400 in 1997. Of the juveniles
incarcerated on any given day, one in 10 are in adult jails or prisons.

Arizona is one of the states where prosecutors can bump a juvenile case
into adult court at their own discretion. It is also a state with a number
of mandatory sentencing laws. Jeff Stackhouse was charged as an adult on
three separate counts of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon. Since
the boys Jeff pulled his unloaded gun on were all under 15, the prosecutor
also had the option of classifying the assault as a so-called dangerous
crime against children, and he did. If Jeff Stackhouse is convicted, he
could be sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison.

Earlier this summer, the attorney assigned to him, a young public defender
named Douglas Passon, was still hoping to get the case sent back to the
juvenile court, which would most likely put Jeff in a juvenile detention
facility until he is 18. That's a long shot; once a case is sent to adult
court, it almost always stays there. Assuming Jeff remains in the adult
system, the best-case scenario would be probation, which wouldn't get him
any psychological counseling but would at least keep him out of the
penitentiary. For now, the prosecutor has offered 10 years in an adult
prison, which Passon thinks is no kind of deal at all. Still, he realizes
"that at some point I may be asking Jeff to make up his mind about that.
This is a kid who's not old enough to see an R-rated movie by himself, and
we're telling him he's old enough to go to prison and get jumped in the
showers. We're asking him to make decisions that will affect his entire
life in ways he can't even imagine."

When you are 14, it's not easy to project yourself into the future with any
sense of clarity; for Jeff Stackhouse, maybe that's a good thing. The
present -- which is to say, the Madison Street Jail in downtown Phoenix, a
multistory building that resembles a particularly ugly parking garage -- is
overwhelming enough. I visited Jeff in jail one day in June, when it was
107 outside, but fluorescent-lighted and as weatherless as a casino inside.
Jeff had been in jail since February. A jocular female guard escorted him
into the room, and because I was accompanied by his lawyer, I was permitted
to sit on the same side of the Plexiglas partition with him. When his
mother comes, she has to sit on the other side, with the signs that say "No
Kissing. No Hugging" in clear view, and as Jeff tells me, "she just cries
and cries."

Jeff Stackhouse is short, with clear hazel eyes, a face still softened by
puppy fat and no hint of a whisker. He wears a faded jail-issue jumpsuit,
the old-fashioned black-and-white-striped kind, orange rubber thongs and
handcuffs. He is soft-spoken and polite -- sweet is the word, really. I had
been wondering what somebody his age missed most in jail, and that was the
first question I asked him. He said he missed his mom, his sister and his

Jeff is housed in a unit with other juveniles, but many of them are 17 and
18, and some are gang members. There are classes for the juveniles held
here, but Jeff gets nervous leaving his cell. When he does, he says, "Guys
hit me in the head or take my latrine supplies, tell me they're going to
beat me up. And if I hit 'em back, then I'd get in trouble and I couldn't
see my mom." He has asked to be put in protective custody, but so far his
request has not been granted. And even when he feels brave enough to face
school, he says it's "too easy. They're doing plurals and nouns and
capitalization. Third-grade work. There was a guy here -- I think he was on
paint chips for a while. He didn't know what the letter Y was. I kind of
felt sorry for him."

Jeff says there is nothing he has got used to about being in jail, but in
some small way, I see, he has already adapted. He has a tattoo now, eked
out on one thin wrist with battery acid, shampoo and a staple. It says
C-A-S-E-Y, which was his brother's name. When Jeff was 7, Casey, then 5,
drowned in a lake near Phoenix where their dad had taken the three kids for
a fishing trip on the day before Mother's Day. Jeff saw it happen. Leslie
and her husband split up after that -- the accident drove them apart, she
says, "because I was looking for Casey in the Bible, wondering what heaven
was like for him, and my husband was looking for him in the bottle" -- and
Jeff has hardly seen his father since. In jail, Jeff had been dreaming
about Casey, and in one dream he looked down at his hand and saw his
brother's name there. When he got up that morning, he told his cellmate he
was ready; he wanted a tattoo. Only he is still kid enough to be
embarrassed about his decision. "It was kind of dumb because my mom got
real mad about it," he says glumly.

As it happens, Jeff is not the only 14-year-old boy sitting in the Madison
Street Jail that day. A boy named Marco is there, too, and has been for
nearly a year. Like Jeff, he is the sort of kid who, not so long ago, would
have been kept within the juvenile system and considered a candidate for
psychological intervention rather than adult-style punishment. Before his
arrest, on July 30, 1999, Marco, who is the oldest child of Mexican
immigrants -- his mother works for a furniture company and his father
drives a forklift -- had never been in any kind of trouble. He was a small,
shy, bright boy who did well in school. Soon after he turned 14, however,
Marco was arrested for sexually molesting his 7-year-old sister. His mother
confronted him with the charge, and when he admitted his guilt, she turned
her son in. "I told him that I was going to take my daughter to the
doctor," she said in an interview with the police. "If the doctor diagnosed
that he had abused her, I was going to have to turn him over to the police.
. . . When you make a mistake, you have to pay for it."

I didn't meet Marco that day, but I talked to his lawyer, an energetic,
no-nonsense woman named Frances Gray, who is 47 and came to the law after a
career as a software programmer for Bell Atlantic. Gray liked Marco and was
worried about his fate. "Charged in the adult system," she wrote me in an
e-mail message after our meeting, "his offenses mandate adult prison --
five years minimum" in the one adult facility in Arizona that takes
juveniles. But, Gray wrote, the prison has "no counseling programs for
juvenile sex offenders like my client. All of the research on juvenile sex
offenders emphasizes the importance of, and amenability to, treatment for
this vulnerable age group." In fact, the only thing prison could do for
kids like Marco was to "segregate them so they don't get beaten up by the
general population (all sex offenders are preyed upon in jails and prisons)
until they turn 18 and are thrown to the 'wolves' in the adult sex offender
treatment program."

When I talked to Gray, she had been assembling evidence about juvenile sex
offenders in general and Marco in particular, and what she had found made
her only more determined to get him into treatment in the juvenile system.
In the first place, Marco admitted what he had done and showed remorse.
"Please tell Mom and Dad that I'm sorry," he wrote to the victim, his
sister Helena, on the night he was arrested. "I can't imagine the pain and
hurt this is causing them. I hope that someday they will forgive me as
well. Helena, I'm sorry I ever did this to you, especially for your being
my sister. . . . You can't even imagine how bad and guilty I feel about
what I did." In the second place, he had not fondled any other children,
nor had he tried to lure any others to him with candy or other bribes. "He
is a young man who is in need of therapeutic assistance," concluded a
psychologist and sexual-abuse expert who evaluated him. "However, I do not
see him as an individual who represents a high risk for subsequent
victimization of others around him."

At home in the evenings, Gray couldn't get the case out of her mind. She
feared that if Marco went to prison as a boy, he would emerge as a man
beyond reach. "You tell kids, If you don't shape up, you go to prison. And
then you have a first offense and you're sent to prison. What more can
society hold over you?" She thought she had some good evidence about
Marco's prospects for rehabilitation, and her research had convinced her
that the majority of sexual offenses committed by adolescents were one-time
events -- especially if the kids got help. But she also knew that lawyers
trying to keep juveniles out of adult prison were playing a much harder
game now.

One hundred years ago, when progressive-era reformers first invented the
idea of a separate justice system for juveniles, it was boys like Jeff and
Marco they had in mind. Nearly everything about the newly created juvenile
court, from its paternalistic ethos to its central tenet that juveniles
were not to be confused with hardened criminals to its goal of sentencing
"in the best interest of the child," represented a radical break with the
past and a pledge of faith in the malleability of youth. Until then,
children had been tried, sentenced, imprisoned and sometimes executed
alongside adults.

The common-law tradition did offer some recognition that young children
were different from adults. Children under 7 who committed crimes were
presumed not to be responsible for them and could not be punished. But
after that, the question of culpability got murkier. Those between the ages
of 7 and 14 were generally thought to lack responsibility for their
actions. Those between 14 and 21 were presumed capable of forming criminal
intent and were therefore punishable. Yet as early as the 1820's, judges
who had to sentence juveniles in criminal court worried openly about the
implications of putting young people behind bars. Letting them off
scot-free was neither morally nor socially acceptable, but sending them to
jail or prison with adults was like consigning them, in the words of one
judge, to a "nursery of vices and crimes, a college for the perfection of
adepts in guilt."

By the turn of the century, these qualms had spread widely enough to make
jury nullification a problem: jurors were acquitting young lawbreakers
rather than imposing sentences that would lock them up with adults. At the
same time, the emerging child-study movement and the new specialty of
pediatrics helped popularize the idea that childhood was a distinct phase
of life and that adolescents, in particular, moved through discrete
developmental stages, which adults had a duty to try and understand. Like
compulsory school-attendance laws and bans on child labor, the juvenile
court was a product of this new approach to childhood. It was to be
presided over by a judge in street clothes, not a black robe, seated at a
desk, where he could easily put a reassuring arm around a troubled lad.

In 1899, Illinois established the first juvenile court; by 1925, 46 states
had done the same. The idea of a justice system tailored for children sank
deep roots in American culture. In fact, it was not until the late 1960's
that the system came under any real questioning. Paradoxically, the assault
was launched by the civil liberties left. Because the juvenile court was
supposed to be helping the accused child and because it shielded his
identity in a way the criminal court did not, it was liberated from the
necessity for due process protections -- the right to counsel, the right to
confront witnesses, the privilege against self-incrimination and so forth.
The trouble with this arrangement was that it offered the court nearly
unlimited authority to confine youths while it devised cures for their
antisocial behavior.

The civil liberties critique of the juvenile justice system found its most
powerful expression in the Supreme Court's 1967 decision in the Gault case.
On June 8, 1964, Gerald Gault, a 15-year-old boy living in Gila County,
Ariz., made an obscene phone call to his neighbor, one Mrs. Cook. (He
wondered, quaintly enough, if she had "big bombers.") Mrs. Cook called the
sheriff, who arrested the boy; his mother came home from work and found
Gerald missing, with no explanation. At two subsequent hearings, Mrs. Cook
never appeared, no other witnesses were sworn and no transcript made. Yet
in the end, the judge ordered Gerald committed to a juvenile facility until
his 21st birthday -- even though the maximum sentence for an adult who
committed the same crime would have been two months in jail or a $50 fine.
When the Supreme Court acted on the case, it concluded in irate language
that Gerald's constitutional rights had been breached by "a kangaroo court"
- -- and extended to juveniles all due process rights except that of a jury

Gault was a necessary reform for a system that had become too arbitrary.
But instead of leading to further constructive reforms, it led to
full-scale rebellion: Gault helped open the door to the dismantling of the
juvenile justice system. It galvanized a liberal movement for emancipation
of minors that cast them as rights-bearing autonomous citizens, barely
distinguishable from adults. It also "energized the tough-on-crime
constituency," says Steven Drizin, the supervising attorney at the Children
and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern University School of Law.
"The juvenile court has been fighting the sound bite ever since that if you
give kids adult rights, you can give them adult time, too." Of course,
kids, some of them anyway, weren't helping matters. A spike in the juvenile
crime rate in the early 1990's and a cluster of school shootings in the
latter years of the decade all created the impression that young people
were getting away with murder.

Even after the juvenile crime rate fell precipitously in the late 90's,
this sentiment continued to gain currency, as Franklin Zimring, a
criminal-law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, points
out, because "a punishment gap was opening between the adult and juvenile
systems. The tough-on-crime crowd had won the war in the criminal system;
now they looked at the juvenile court and said, 'Hey, we've got to make it
look more like the adult version."' Increasingly, the focus was on the
offense, not the offender.

"What I noticed," says Stephen Harper, an assistant public defender in
Miami who has handled cases in which juveniles were transferred to the
adult system, "is that there was much less curiosity about who a kid was,
why he might have done what he did. Was there abuse in his background,
neglect, a drug-addicted parent?" Indeed, as more and more states began
transferring kids to adult court, it became clear that youth itself would
not be considered a mitigating circumstance. There was no contemporary
legal precedent for going easier on a 14-year-old than a 40-year-old in
criminal court -- that's what juvenile court had been for, after all. And
in any case, the new mandatory sentencing laws left judges little
opportunity for leniency.

The new attitude meant passing laws that allowed more and more kids to be
sent to adult court at younger and younger ages -- many of them poor, a
disproportionate number of them black. It also meant breaking the old taboo
against dispatching the young to adult prisons, those "nurseries of vices
and crimes" that advocates of the juvenile court had long lamented.

When Jessica Robinson was 13, she took part in a crime that Judge Barbara
Levenson called "horrible, vile" and one of the most "deeply saddening"
cases she had ever heard in her courtroom. On July 12, 1997, animated by a
vague plan to go to Disney World with their spoils, Jessica and two older
teenagers robbed her grandparents in their Miami home. It was Jessica who
knocked on the door, calling, "Grandma, I need to talk to you." Once
inside, she and another girl ransacked the house, snatching up jewelry,
cash, liquor and clothes, while the 16-year-old boy with them slashed the
furniture and the hand of Jessica's grandfather. At one point, the boy led
Jessica's grandparents onto a glassed-in porch, where he threatened to kill
them. Neither of the victims was seriously harmed, but as her grandmother
testified at Jessica's sentencing: "Me and her grandpa is not young
anymore. Our lives have been destroyed. We are terrified to go to our
door." And she added plaintively, "I would like to ask her: 'Why? Why,

Though Jessica had not actually wielded the knife or herded the victims
onto the porch, she was charged with assault and armed kidnapping as well
as armed robbery and sentenced to nine years in an adult prison. Asked to
apologize to her grandparents during the trial, she at first refused, then
managed only an impassive "I'm sorry" at the sentencing. "Animals," Judge
Levenson told her, "don't treat their families the way you treated your

Jessica's family had never been much of a haven. Her mother left her dad,
whom she described to Jessica's lawyers as abusive, in 1986, when the girls
were 3 and 6. "I was scared," she told Claudia Kemp, a student at the
Florida State University College of Law who is working on an appeal for
Jessica, "scared that either he would eventually kill me or I would have to
kill him in order to protect myself and the children." The family moved
from Austin, Tex., to Miami, and Jessica has not seen her father since.

In Miami, Jessica's mother found a one-bedroom apartment in a housing
project for her and the girls and worked as a waitress on the night shift
at Denny's. She told Kemp that she often felt exhausted and frustrated, and
that when she did, she would hit Jessica with a belt or her hand. Still,
until Jessica entered the seventh grade, she seems to have caused little
trouble at school or at home. A family friend thought of her as "a very
normal, sweet kid" who loved to swim, sing and ride her bike. At 13,
though, Jessica started getting into fights at home -- on one occasion,
throwing a plate at her 16-year-old sister; on another, biting her mother's
hand. According to juvenile records, she repeatedly ran away for weeks at a
time, occasionally staying at the apartment of a drug dealer in his 20's
named Shorty.

A psychologist who evaluated her after one of these incidents described her
as a girl of average intelligence, "cooperative with the examiner," but
suffering from a "severe conduct disorder." A psychiatrist thought Jessica
was "extremely childish and coquettish." Both evaluators recommended that
Jessica be placed in a secure residential treatment center where she could
receive therapy and a more definitive diagnosis. Instead, she was released
into her grandparents' care; and when she quarreled with them, too, her
grandmother called the police and Jessica was arrested again. Jessica told
Kemp that her motivation for helping to rob her grandparents stemmed from
this fight, that she was driven by "nothing but revenge."

On July 30, 1998, Jessica arrived at Jefferson Correctional Institution, a
women's prison with conspicuous gun towers and a tough reputation, located
30 miles east of Tallahassee. At 14, she was then the youngest female in
the Florida correctional system and the object of considerable curiosity.
In the dining hall or the exercise yard, other prisoners strained for a
good look at her, this lethargic girl with big green eyes, dirty blond hair
hanging straight down her back and a prison-issue uniform that billowed
over her slight frame. Within her first few weeks at Jefferson, Jessica
tried to commit suicide. For a long time, her lawyers say, she seemed
genuinely confused about the parameters of prison life. She kept asking
them if she could just go out for a couple of hours with them -- to the
beach or to Taco Bell, maybe -- and come back that night.

In prison, Jessica has found surrogate mothers to replace the real one who
has yet to visit her incarcerated daughter. Jessica's first mother was a
stocky, gray-haired woman named Susanne Manning, who was serving a 25-year
term for embezzlement. Manning had a 13-year-old son of her own on the
outside, and she pushed Jessica to do her homework, bought her snacks, read
her "The Little Mermaid" and kept her out of fights when she could. "An
embezzler is about the most trustworthy type you can find in prison," says
Paolo Annino, a lawyer with the Children's Advocacy Center at the Florida
State University College of Law who is representing Jessica in her appeal.
"It's a lot better than having some slasher take you under her wing."

In October of last year, however, Jessica was transferred to Dade County
Correctional Institution, near Miami. Her "family"at Dade is larger and
more elaborate than it was in Tallahassee -- it includes women whom Jessica
calls her grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, cousins, sisters,
brothers. It is also considerably rougher, and for this reason, it is easy
to see how a girl could settle into a life not just of crime but of truly
depraved crime. The woman Jessica now refers to as Mommy, a beautiful,
blue-eyed, heavily tattooed 29-year-old with the nickname Blackie, is
serving a life sentence for murder. She and a male accomplice robbed two
elderly people and cut their throats with a machete. The other Dade
prisoner who wanted to be Jessica's mommy -- they staged a sort of custody
battle -- stole an elderly man's checks with an accomplice, who then beat
the man to death.

At Dade, Jessica isn't going to class anymore to get her G.E.D. "In a
juvenile facility, you're required to attend school; in an adult prison,
you're not," Kemp says. "Jessica's a teenager, and she finds a lot of
reasons not to." She goes to her prison family for advice now. They don't
think much of school, but in their way, they spoil her. On her 16th
birthday, they made Jessica a cake out of Pop-Tarts and melted chocolate
bars from the canteen; they buy her cigarettes; they think her street-girl
swagger is cute. "She gets a lot of attention," says Kemp. "It's a mixed-up
world in there, and there's a value to being associated with her."

Annino and Kemp are trying to get Jessica transferred to a juvenile
facility where she can receive psychological counseling and an education.
When Annino first met Jessica, he concluded his interview by asking, as he
asks all his clients, what she wanted from her association with him.
Jessica "looked up sort of sleepily and said, 'Milk,"' Annino recalls. "She
wanted more milk than she was getting in the prison diet, which is based on
the nutritional needs of an adult. I have an 8-year-old at home, and that
really struck me." As for Kemp, she is 47, with three daughters of her own,
and says she couldn't help feeling protective of her client. "When you
first meet her, she seems very defiant. She's got this heavy street accent.
But when you spend time with her, you see she's still such a child. She
whines; she fidgets. She wants your attention; she wants to be taken care
of; she wants you to tell her to take her medication." Miami is a long way
from Tallahassee, though, and her lawyers hardly ever see Jessica in person

If their appeal fails, Jessica will get out of prison when she is 22. She
will have no education beyond the sixth grade, no job skills, no friends
her age and no experience of ordinary, unincarcerated life after the age of
13. What she will have is a felony record -- unlike the juvenile courts,
adult courts do not preserve anonymity -- and a collection of "mothers" and
mentors, among whom a convicted embezzler is by far the most wholesome. She
will have been raised by wolves, and then she will be released, like most
juveniles convicted in adult court, when she is still young enough to
commit many more crimes.

The body of research on juveniles in adult prison is not especially large.
Until recently, there weren't enough Jessica Robinsons to warrant
systematic information-gathering. It isn't even all that easy to locate
young inmates, in part because states have adopted different policies about
how and where to house them. "The majority of states follow a practice of
dispersing young inmates in the general prison population," says Dale
Parent, a project director with the research firm Abt Associates in
Cambridge, Mass., which is conducting a long-term study on juveniles in
state prison systems. "They might not put a small, vulnerable adolescent in
a cell with a sex offender, but other than that, they do not segregate the
youth, and they have no separate programs for them. A few states have
extreme segregation -- physically separate housing units where youthful
offenders have no contact with the adult population -- or arrangements with
the state juvenile facility where they spend a few years there and are
transferred to prison on their 18th birthdays."

There are plenty of reasons to keep juvenile offenders away from the adult
prison population. In general, young prisoners are more vulnerable than
adults to sexual exploitation and physical brutalization. They are more
likely than older inmates to commit suicide. They are more likely than
young people in juvenile detention facilities to be physically assaulted
and to return to a life of crime when they are set free.

None of this should come as any surprise. Prison populations are not only
older, larger and more criminally experienced than juvenile detention
populations, they are also more violent. (Nearly 50 percent of prison
inmates are violent offenders, while only 20 percent of juvenile training
school residents are.) Prisoners tend to be much more idle than juveniles
in detention. Only one-third of state prison inmates work more than 34
hours a week, and only half take classes. In juvenile facilities, on the
other hand, kids spend most of the day in school, vocational-training,
group counseling, substance abuse programs and the like and are encouraged
to form bonds with their counselors and teachers. When Donna Bishop, a
professor of criminology

at Northeastern University, interviewed minors in juvenile and adult
facilities in Florida, she concluded that youths in prison "spent much of
their time talking to more skilled and experienced offenders who taught
them new techniques of committing crime and methods of avoiding detection."

An earlier study that Bishop and Charles Frazier conducted in Florida
points to the effects of such environments on recidivism. Thousands of
young offenders are sent to criminal court in Florida each year. But
because so many of those transfers come about at the discretion of
prosecutors, thousands of other juveniles, charged with equally serious
crimes, are not. Bishop and Frazier were thus able to match by age, race,
gender, current charges and past criminal record 2,738 juveniles who had
been prosecuted as adults with 2,738 who had stayed in the juvenile system.
Over a period of up to two years, they found that 30 percent of the
teenagers prosecuted in criminal court were rearrested; the figure for
those who had gone through the juvenile system was 19 percent. Transfers
also proved more likely to be arrested for more serious offenses.

For all these reasons, many prison and jail officials would rather they
never had to deal with youthful inmates at all. "We don't want juveniles
locked up with adults," says Ken Kerle, the managing editor of American
Jails magazine, the official publication of the American Jails Association.
"I don't think we're doing the country any good by going back to Square 1
and chucking the whole idea of a separate system for juveniles. You can't
handle kids like you handle adults. They're mercurial; they've got a lot of
emotional growing-up to do. They need education, they need exercise and
they need guards who have some insight into them. Put 'em in adult
facilities, and they come out worse than when they went in."

Last year, the American Correctional Association, the professional
organization that represents prison staffs, passed a resolution in favor of
limiting transfers from juvenile to criminal court as sharply as possible,
holding youthful offenders only where they can be entirely separate from
adults and developing new training in adolescent psychology for those
prison officials who are forced to manage the very young.
Corrections-industry journals, meanwhile, have been particularly blunt when
it comes to laying out the practical dilemmas of treating children as
adults. "If inmates under the age of 18 are housed with the general
population," a writer in Corrections Today asked recently, "does this mean
adult systems should treat them like adults in every way or does it mean
that special considerations should be made to their questionable adult
status? Can a youthful offender be sold tobacco products? . . . Can an
incarcerated juvenile file a child-abuse complaint against prison
officials?" These are far from hypothetical questions. "Unless a parent or
guardian signs permission for it," says Elisa Corrado, a social worker who
works with imprisoned juveniles in Miami, "they can't get a Tylenol.
They're still minors, even if they're in adult prison."

If we are going to keep prosecuting juveniles as adults, one thing it would
surely be useful to know is what children can understand, at different
ages, about the criminal process. To what degree can a child at 10 or 12 or
an adolescent at 14 or 15 be expected to participate in his or her own
defense? Is immaturity, like insanity or mental retardation, a form of
incompetence -- an effective limitation on a defendant's capacity to
comprehend the charges and proceedings against him? When the Supreme Court
asserted in its 1962 decision in Gallegos v. Colorado that "a 14-year-old
boy, no matter how sophisticated . . . is not equal to the police in
knowledge and understanding . . . and is unable to know how to protect his
own interests or how to get the benefits of his constitutional rights,"
there may have been a general consensus that this was true. But now many
judicial experts on both left and right hold a vision of children as
competent legal decision-makers, reared on cop shows and Court TV and
casually familiar with their due-process rights and how to demand them.

These questions acquire a particular poignancy when it comes to the
investigative stage of a crime, during which young suspects are interviewed
by the police. Children, especially those 12 and under, are much more
likely to waive their rights. (In one study, 90 percent of juvenile
suspects waived their rights to silence and to counsel, compared with 60
percent of adults.) And they are much more likely to say what they think
adults want to hear, especially if they think it means they can go home
soon. The 7- and 8-year-old boys accused of sexually assaulting and killing
11-year-old Ryan Harris in Chicago two years ago -- and later cleared of
all charges -- were enticed to confess over a McDonald's Happy Meal. An
11-year-old boy who now says he falsely confessed to murdering his elderly
neighbor wanted to get the police interview over with so he could go home
to his younger brother's birthday party. "Kids confess all the time," says
Mara Siegel, a deputy public defender in Phoenix. "They talk to the police
all the time. It can drive you crazy."

Mark Chaffin, a pediatrician and psychologist at the University of Oklahoma
Health Sciences Center, agrees that children are particularly vulnerable to
offering false confessions. "Tendencies like wanting to please, wanting to
say what they think the adult authority figure wants to hear or
misunderstanding the situation," he says, all leave children at risk. "I
think law-enforcement officials know how to interview people who are
mentally retarded or psychotic," he adds. "But there's not a lot of
specific training about how you interview a 10-year-old suspect."

A few states require the presence of an "interested adult" -- usually a
parent -- when a child is being interrogated, but most do not. So what
should be done? "My recommendation," says Thomas Grisso, a forensic
psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, "is that
kids 14 or under who are being questioned should have at least a parent
available. Even if they don't have good relationships with their parents,
the parents are still the people they look to for their buffer, their

By the age of 14, several studies have shown, most children can accurately
explain the purpose of trials and the role of judges and juries and can
offer reasonably accurate definitions of a right. Children under 14,
however, have a much weaker grasp on these concepts. Studies that have
looked at juveniles' understanding of specific Miranda rights have found
that adolescents 15 and older generally comprehend them about as well as
adults, but that younger children frequently misconstrue them. According to
Grisso, many children understood "the right to remain silent" to mean "they
should remain silent until they were told to talk." To one boy who took
Grisso's Miranda comprehension test, the right to remain silent simply
meant "don't make noise."

Recent insights from neuroscience tend to support the notion that teenagers
really are different from adults, and in precisely the ways anyone who has
ever been a teenager might think. Researchers at the National Institutes of
Mental Health have used brain imaging, for example, to show that both the
frontal lobe and the corpus callosum, the cable of nerves connecting the
left and right sides of the brain, are still underdeveloped in adolescence.
And they surmise that until those parts of the brain have fully matured,
they can contribute to greater impulsiveness and wider and more frequent
mood swings. "Teenagers," Jay Giedd of the N.I.M.H. said in a speech last
year, "don't utilize inhibitory pathways as well as their parents do to
moderate their impulses." (To which their parents, anyway, might say,

Still, we are unlikely to return to an era when the juvenile system held
sway over all lawbreakers under 18. And besides, limbically challenged or
not, a 17-year-old clearly isn't as deserving a candidate for leniency as,
say, a 12-year-old. Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist
who heads a research project on adolescent development and juvenile
justice, would rather see the law adopt more subtle dividing lines. "Most
people older than 16 are not greatly distinguishable from adults on the
relevant competencies -- the ability to think through future consequences,
for example," he says. "On the other hand, people 13 and under really do
not have these abilities. For them, adult court should not be an issue."
The tricky ages, says Steinberg, are 14, 15 and sometimes 16. In that age
range, some adolescents -- especially those with emotional or learning
difficulties, which would include many kids in the criminal justice system
- -- are childlike in important respects, while others are quite mature.

There will always be some juveniles who deserve to be tried and punished in
the adult system, either because their crimes are particularly coldblooded
or because they have been given repeated chances to reform and repeatedly
failed to do so. Even some of the staunchest advocates for juveniles
concede that a few of them are irredeemably dangerous. "I'm a believer that
there is true evil in the world," Darrow Soll, a former public defender and
prosecutor in Phoenix told me. "I'm not so foolish as to think that every
child can be saved just because of their age. But an effort has to be made.
There are a few who you say no juvenile system in the world is going to be
able to save. But in my experience, those are definitely the exceptions."

The majority of young offenders dabble in crime and grow out of the urge to
do so. "Self-report studies indicate that most teenage males engage in some
criminal conduct," notes Elizabeth Scott, a law professor, in a recent
essay, "leading criminologists to conclude that participation in
delinquency is 'a normal part of teen life."' And think about it for a
minute: did you ever do anything illegal as a teenager? (Yes, drugs and
booze count.)

"I had juvenile referrals when I was a kid," says Soll, who is now a
criminal defense attorney with a posh Phoenix firm. "And if I came into the
system now, I'd probably be incarcerated. I wouldn't have gotten into the
military. I wouldn't have gotten an education. I sure wouldn't have entered
the bar." One of Soll's oddest moments as a public defender came when he
was called upon to represent a 15-year-old boy charged in criminal court
and facing a possible four-year prison sentence for stealing a golf cart
and setting it on fire. "What was weird about it was that I had done
virtually the same thing when I was that age," says Soll. He is 34 and a
natty dresser with a bemused, cherubic face and a roster of well-heeled
clients. But he grew up working class in Glendale, Jeff Stackhouse's

"O.K., in my case, I took the golf cart and drove it into the pool at
school -- big prank," Soll explains. "But I went to court, and I had this
Roy Bean-type judge who said, 'Son, in the old days I could have sent you
into the Army, and I can't now, but that's what I'd do with you.' And I did
go into the Army, and I became a paratrooper, and it was a great
educational experience for me and a lot of other rough-and-tumble kids like
me. A whole lot better than fending off gangs in the state pen. If I'd done
that today, I'd have a felony conviction and they wouldn't even let me in
the Army." He whistles under his breath. "Boy, you don't want to be the
parent of a teenager these days."

Last month, I visited Phoenix again. Jeff was still in jail, though in
protective custody at last. Not much had changed for him, though he seemed
a little more comfortable and, with a sprinkling of acne on his chin, a
little older. Marco, on the other hand, was 24 hours away from being moved
to prison in Tucson. Having pleaded guilty to two counts of attempt to
molest, he had been sentenced to five years in prison. His lawyer, Frances
Gray, had to see him one last time, to fill out some paperwork, so she
invited me to come along.

When Gray and I enter the visiting room, Marco is waiting for us, slumped
over on a molded plastic chair, staring at his feet. This is the first time
I have met him in person. He has big, dark, scared-looking, myopic eyes; he
ought to be wearing glasses, but they're broken. After a brief and awkward
introduction, he mumbles: "Miss Gray, they've changed my status. I'm not
minimum security anymore. Do you know how come?"

The lawyer, wearing a floral-print blouse and a black cardigan against the
air-conditioned chill, has her back to us while she writes. "Well, Marco,
you've been sentenced," she says crisply. "You're not presumed innocent
anymore. You're considered a greater escape risk."

"Oh," he says. "I thought maybe it was something I did, but I couldn't
think what."

We're quiet for a while, trying to avoid the slack-jawed stares of three
guys in the visiting room behind us, who have their noses literally pressed
against the window. "Miss Gray," says Marco, softly. "You know what I've
heard about prison? I've heard that everything's really racial there --
that they make you join a gang, even if you don't want to. The guards say,
'You want to go with the Mexicans or what?' There's a guy here, he's 15, he
made a bad mistake. He told people he's half black and half Mexican. Now,
when he goes to prison, everybody's going to beat him up."

As she turns around to face him, Gray reminds Marco that she is not his
lawyer anymore.

"You're not?"

"No, now you'll be assigned an appeal lawyer by the public defender's
office. But that doesn't mean you can't write to me. Keep studying, O.K.?
Get your G.E.D. Stay out of trouble in there. Because if you do, you have a
chance of making some kind of life for yourself when you get out. O.K.?"

Before we go, I ask Marco if he thinks jail, where he has been for more
than a year -- his family never could muster the $9,600 bail -- has changed
him. "Yeah," he says. "It's hard to explain. I know how to start a fight
now, let's put it that way." He doesn't say anything for a while, and then
he adds: "When I first came here, I didn't know what to do. I didn't even
know there was a Madison Street Jail. Now when the new guys come, they look
at me like I'm supposed to tell them what to do, like I'm the old-timer."

I don't know quite what to say to Marco when we leave, so, lamely, I say,
"Good luck." The automatic doors close behind us, and crisp, no-nonsense
Frances Gray bursts into tears. "You see, they don't know, these kids don't
know, and I do. They think the worst of it is being locked up. When I first
saw Marco, he was this petrified little kid. All he wanted was to go home.
Now all he can think about is, How many days, how many hours do I have to
be in prison? He doesn't know the worst of it is when he gets out, and he's
a convicted sex offender and he can't get a job and he can't be around
anyone under 18, and he can't live with his family because he can't be
around his sister."

We walk outside, into the glare of downtown Phoenix. I'm thinking that
nothing good is going to come of sending Jeff or Marco to prison. Some
older adolescents -- 16- and 17-year-olds, especially -- do belong in adult
court. Others in that age range would be good candidates for an innovative
strategy called blended sentencing, which is now being used in 19 states.
Under this practice, young offenders serve their time in juvenile
facilities until they are 18 or 21, but have an additional sentence in
adult prison hanging over them if officials think they still pose a danger.
But any child 14 or younger -- and make no mistake, it is children we are
talking about -- is too unformed, too vulnerable, too easily swayed, too
limited in his understanding of the criminal process to be subjected to it
in full force.

"You know," Gray says, "I was a public defender in Virginia for a while,
and I sometimes had to work in the juvenile court there, and I hated it --
the wishy-washiness of it, the endless hearings. Now, here I am dealing
with kids where they were never meant to be, in criminal court, where none
of us are prepared to deal with them. And I would give my front teeth -- my
front teeth -- to have a situation where there wasn't a final disposition,
where you weren't sealing some kid's fate forever."
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