Many of the nation’s prosecutors and judges continue to put kids on trial as adults. This, despite declining crime rates among juveniles and growing scientific evidence about the inappropriateness of taking young offenders out of the court system designed specifically to protect them.
One such high-profile case ended this past month with the sentencing of Thomas Lane, now 18, for cafeteria murders of three students at Chardon High School in Ohio last year. Lane’s trial was moved from juvenile to adult court, where Judge David Fuhry gave him three consecutive life sentences without any chance of parole.
In Maryland last month, 15-year-old Robert Gladden was convicted of firing a shotgun in the cafeteria at Perry Hall High School and wounding one of his classmates. Tried as an adult, Gladden was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Gladden’s attorney attempted to have the case moved to juvenile court — due to an odd twist in Maryland’s law whereby youngsters charged with violent crimes must convince a judge they should not be held to adult standards — but the defense never had a chance. Although Gladden’s and Lane’s crimes were committed months before the horrific shootings in Newtown, Conn., each was sentenced after the Sandy Hook rampage and its resulting torrent of emotion and media attention.
The more publicity a youth case receives, the more eager prosecutors seem to be to try it in adult court. Washington, D.C.: five kids await trial as adults in the murder of an 18-year-old in the subway. Raleigh, N.C.: four boys, all age 15, charged as adults in the death of a homeless man. San Jose, Calif.: four teens to be tried as adults in a beating death at a basketball court. The list is long and troubling.
The issue isn’t whether violent children should be coddled, nor is it about releasing dangerous individuals, regardless of age, back into society. The fact is that we wisely have different judicial standards for children.
In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down several decisions that begin to address this, at least at the most extreme levels. In 2005 it barred states from executing anyone for a crime committed as a minor. In 2010 it ruled that no juvenile may be sentenced to life without parole for any crime other than murder. And in 2012 it ruled that children may not be given life sentences unless a judge reviews the specifics of the case and the child’s situation.
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan in the majority opinion, “among them, immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
She added, “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
In the 2010 opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said there are “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.” Indeed, significant research indicates that human psycho- social development doesn’t fully mature until at least age 22.
The facts are these: Roughly 200,000 kids are tried as adults in the United States each year. There are currently an estimated 2,000 people serving life sentences, without the chance for parole, for crimes committed before they were 18. This country has the most such prisoners of any developed nation.
While it would be reasonable to incarcerate a convicted juvenile until age 21 and then review carefully his psychological status before considering the ultimate sentence, to prosecute a child and throw away the key is barbaric.
Thomas Lane, the Ohio shooter sentenced last month, is not likely to receive sympathy from many Americans — particularly those who have seen the online video of his grotesque courtroom behavior. But justice is supposed to be blind to such things.
We either acknowledge that children must be treated differently or we don’t.