As Another Young Boy Commits Suicide in an Adult Prison, We Must Rethink the Prosecution of Children as Adults
By Marsha Levick
Zachary Proper, age 15, committed suicide two weeks ago in an adult prison in Pennsylvania. There has been little media coverage of his death, suggesting a disturbing complacency about suicide by youth who would rather take their own lives than endure decades in jail.
How did Zachary end up serving time as an "adult"? At the age of 13, he was charged with killing his grandparents. Under Pennsylvania law, because Zachary was charged with murder, state law required that he be charged as an adult. He ultimately plead guilty to third degree murder of his grandparents and was sentenced to 35-80 years in prison.
Although charged as an adult, Zachary also had the right in Pennsylvania to ask the criminal court to send his case to juvenile court. His lawyer did just that. The criminal court heard testimony from Zachary himself as well as law enforcement, family members and experts who evaluated Zachary. Zachary's parents supported their son throughout these court proceedings. While there was testimony about Zachary's abusive childhood and a prior suicide attempt, the court declined to transfer his case to juvenile court, and was particularly troubled by the absence of a "guarantee" that Zachary would be rehabilitated by age 21, when juvenile court jurisdiction would end. Of course, no expert could offer such a guarantee. But there are highly successful, proven programs that can help kids who commit serious crimes, even those who have committed murder. The chance of success for Zachary would have been especially promising since the juvenile justice system would have had nearly eight years of his adolescence to work with him - a critical period for change and transformation as Zachary matured into adulthood.
Zachary's story illustrates a long-standing dilemma in this country, one that claws at our nation's conscience. What do we do with kids who commit serious crimes?
Do we toss them aside or do we finally get them the help they need and deserve as children? Thirteen year-old Zachary, who confessed to killing his grandparents, was also a good student, a member of his school's football team, and enjoyed swimming, camping and canoeing with his family. But childhood abuse and depression were also part of his story. How can we reasonably hold children accountable for their actions, protect the public and give these children and families some hope for a positive ending?
In their recent book on contemporary justice policy for youth, Rethinking Juvenile Justice, Dr. Laurence Steinberg and Columbia Law Professor Elizabeth Scott recommend that no child younger than 15 be prosecuted and sentenced as an adult.
Dr. Steinberg and Professor Scott explain that youth younger than 15 are likely to be "significantly less culpable than their adult counterparts and substantially more vulnerable to the harsh context of adult prison." Yet throughout the country, children as young - or younger - than Zachary routinely face adult prosecution and adult prison sentences. Many of these children have a history of abuse or untreated mental illness. But does age or circumstance matter in the U.S. justice system?
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged that children must be treated differently in our courts, recognizing the developmental immaturity, reduced impulse control, reduced ability to understand long-term consequences and thus reduced culpability of youth who are charged even with the most serious crimes. This is not to say they should not be held accountable, but rather, that they should be held accountable in age-appropriate ways. The transfer laws that placed 13-year-old Zachary at the door of the criminal justice system are vestiges of the 1990's, steeped in the discredited super-predator myth that was short on facts and ignorant of the research spearheaded by experts like Dr. Steinberg and Professor Scott. How can we possibly be surprised by this outcome when we've only compounded one tragedy with another?
This story begs the question, what is justice when it comes to children? There is no other instance where children magically become adults because of their behavior; indeed, we steadfastly (and rightly) resist any calls to lower the age at which children can take on "adult" responsibilities such as driving, buying alcohol, buying cigarettes, or serving on juries. We don't make individual exceptions to these legislative prohibitions simply because a child can momentarily behave like an adult. Why? Because we don't believe that these children have the capacity to consistently act responsibly or to make decisions that could permanently affect their lives.
Clearly, we must balance the rights of the child with public safety. That is paramount. But persisting in transferring children like Zachary to the adult criminal justice system simply invites another tragedy. Zachary's story is a reflection of what happens to children when we wrong-headedly treat them as adults. They have no hope.
At 13, Zachary Proper was not an adult. No legal fiction can undo that fact; the tragedy of Zachary Proper's life and death must shatter this inimical public policy once and for all. While we will likely never really know what drove Zachary to kill his grandparents, or what drove him to take his own life at 15, what we do know suggests a child reacting to abuse and distress in his own life in a way that only compounded his family's heartache and loss. While Zachary's actions were unquestionably the actions of a seriously troubled child, we, as the grown-ups in the room, must do better. Until we begin to truly treat children like children in this country, the tragedies will only continue.
The ABA passed two juvenile defense-related resolutions at its Feb. 5-11 meeting.
The first Resolution calls for training for juvenile defense attorneys, resources for juvenile appeals, the provision of timely juvenile appeals and the collection of data on juvenile appeals to remedy institutional barriers to juvenile appellate practice. You can read the Resolution and accompanying report here. The Report cites to statutes, case law, law review articles, and the National Juvenile Defense Standards in explaining the barriers that have prevented effective juvenile appellate advocacy.
This second Resolution tackles the provision of trauma-informed care for youth. It urges “lawyers, law schools and bar associations to adopt trauma-informed, evidence-based approaches and practices on behalf of justice system-involved children and youth who have been exposed to violence, including victims of child abuse and neglect or other crimes and those subject to delinquency or status offense proceedings.” The link to the finalized resolution is broken, but the proposed resolution and accompanying report are available here.
Lawsuit Filed Challenging "Assembly Line Justice" in Cordele
The Southern Center for Human Rights has filed a new lawsuit that challenges the denial of counsel for poor people accused of crimes in the Cordele Judicial Circuit, N.P. v. Georgia. This lawsuit seeks an end to this “meet ‘em and plead ‘em” system of representation, and to ensure that children and adults facing charges in the Cordele Circuit have the benefit of an engaged attorney who will advocate for their best interests. To read the complaint, please click here.
The Cordele Public Defender Office is severely understaffed and underfunded and its lawyers are required to handle an excessive number of cases. Children often appear in a juvenile court without counsel because all of the public defenders are attending proceedings in one of the Superior Courts in the Circuit. For example, a public defender was at only one of three hearings for a fifteen year-old girl charged with delinquent acts and was not present for the hearing in which the child was adjudicated delinquent.
Until mid-2009, the Cordele Circuit Public Defender received both state and county funding for assistant public defenders. However, the Circuit’s county governments stopped funding two attorney positions in 2008 and 2009, leaving the office with only three full-time attorneys to handle cases in four superior courts and four juvenile courts. By comparison, the District Attorney’s office has seven attorneys, with one dedicated to the circuit’s juvenile courts. Other counties in Georgia provide funding for their public defender offices.
The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR) and Arnold & Porter LLC. Lawyers from Arnold & Porter represented Clarence Earl Gideon in the 1963 landmark case that established the right to counsel for people who cannot afford a lawyer, Gideon v. Wainwright. Lawyers at SCHR have long been involved in efforts to make the right to counsel a reality in Georgia.
This is the second time SCHR has sued the Cordele Circuit about indigent defense issues in the last decade. Men and women accused of crimes who could not afford lawyers filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2003 challenging the inadequate representation provided by two part-time lawyers who represented those unable to afford lawyers pursuant to flat-fee contracts with the counties. At that time, a number of poor people accused of crimes were never assigned a lawyer; others languished in jail for months without any contact with one of the contract lawyers.
The named Defendants in the lawsuit are Governor Nathan Deal, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council (GPDSC), the County Commissioners of Ben Hill, Crisp, Dooly, and Wilcox counties, Cordele Circuit Juvenile Court Judge, Cordele Circuit Superior Court Judges and District Attorneys, and others.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the Southern Center for Human Rights at 404-688-1202.
Calif. Governor Signs Bill Giving Youth Sentenced to Die in Prison a Second Chance
On Oct. 1, 2012, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 9, the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which allows youth sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) to petition the courts to review their sentence after they serve 15 years in prison. On review judges can lower their sentence to 25 years to life if they demonstrate remorse and are taking steps towards rehabilitation. The law will take effect January 1, 2013.
Congratulations to all the advocates who were involved in this effort! This is a great victory in the effort to challenge JLWOP practices across the country!
National Juvenile Defender Center
1350 Connecticut Avenue, Suite 304
Washington, DC 20036
New Issue Brief on Victimization and Child Trauma (Implications for Legal Advocates)
· Information about the prevalence and impact of victimization and exposure to violence
· Practice tips for juvenile defenders, children’s attorneys and GALs, judges, and CASAs
· Explanations of traumatic stress symptoms and trauma-related assessments and treatments
· Descriptions of promising local and state initiatives to address trauma
· Guidance on policy reforms and other considerations for trauma-informed advocacy
Please share this link with colleagues and look for our next resource on this topic, coming this fall, Identifying Polyvictimization and Trauma among Court-Involved Children and Youth: A Checklist and Resource Guide for Attorneys and Other Court Appointed Advocates.
Imprisoned teens found more likely to re-offend By Walter Jones
September 11, 2012 1:52 AM EDT
Copyright 2012 The Florida Times-Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
ATLANTA - A new report shows that children and teenagers locked up for breaking the law have become 6 percent more likely to commit another crime than they were in 2003. The figures come from a study conducted by the Pew Center on the States at the request of a commission appointed to propose an overhaul to the juvenile-justice system in Georgia. The commission is investigating ways that could make better use of the funds the state spends on public safety.
The same commission made recommendations last year that the General Assembly enacted that created special courts in every county for addicts and also lowered the sentences for crimes like forgery to reduce the number of prisoners and the expense of guarding them.
Locking up juveniles costs significantly more than housing adult prisoners. The state spends $245 per day on each juvenile detainee, an expense that some advocates say could be better spent on rehabilitation by keeping low-risk offenders in their homes.
“It’s not an easy issue, but I think what we do know now is that there are some programs, some supervision strategies, that have been effective in reducing the likelihood that these youths will re-offend,” said Jason Newman, the Pew Center’s state manager.
The center found that the rate in which the average juvenile in the system committed another crime within three years after release hasn’t changed much since 2003 except for those sent to youth detention centers, which are usually the most violent and at the greatest risk of committing another crime anyway. Only one out of eight juvenile offenders spends his sentence in detention.
The Department of Juvenile Justice issued a statement late Monday saying it had noticed the increase and had been trying to reverse it by partnering with churches, increasing mental treatments after release and by minimizing the number of low-risk juveniles locked up so it can focus on those with the greatest need for attention.
“No one can say with exact certainty what has increased the number of young recidivists in Georgia since 2003,” the statement said. “What is known is that youth who enter deeper levels of Georgia’s juvenile justice system often have higher risk levels and increased likelihood of recidivating.”
It also noted that the increased rate is a factor of the reduced population behind bars since those left are a higher concentration of serious offenders. Plus, there has been a rise in the number of hard-core cases with drug addictions.
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