Crime: Justice For Juveniles?

Almost three years after he became the youngest person sentenced to life in prison (at 14), Lionel Tate won a new trial last week. A Florida appeals court ruled that his mental competency should have been evaluated before his 2001 trial for stomping a 6-year-old to death. There were plenty of signs that he didn't comprehend his situation: doctors deemed him developmentally slow, he spent parts of the trial doodling obliviously and he rejected a generous three-year plea deal. Along with two other Florida cases--involving Nathaniel Brazill, who's serving 28 years for shooting his teacher to death at 13, and Alex and Derek King, who are serving seven and eight years, respectively, for bludgeoning their father to death when they were 12 and 13--Tate has focused a national spotlight on the state's treatment of juvenile offenders. Florida leads the nation in trying children as adults and is one of 15 states that empower prosecutors rather than judges to do so.

After a wave of draconian laws in the 1990s aimed at "superpredator youth," some states are reconsidering their harsh approach. Florida Sen. Steven Geller hopes the Tate case will boost support for a law he's proposed that would divert kids who are convicted in criminal court--and are under 15 and lack prior convictions--to a youthful-offender program for sentencing. An Illinois law passed last year gave the power to decide whether a juvenile should be tried as an adult from prosecutors back to judges. As for Tate, whose newest lawyer is Johnnie Cochran, Florida's attorney general will decide in the next week whether to appeal last week's decision. If he declines, Tate could be out on bond, temporarily free while he awaits a second trial.