Questions &Amp; Answers: When Children Kill

Trying children as adults for serious crimes used to be an oddity. No longer. Lionel Tate, a pudgy boy from Florida, is sentenced to life in prison without parole for beating a 6-year-old girl to death when he was 12. Another boy from Florida receives life without parole after being convicted as an adult for strangling a 12-year-old boy, then tossing his body into a septic tank. In Michigan, a young man who was only 11 when he murdered, is tried as an adult and found guilty. Then there's Andy Williams, the 15-year-old boy who is accused of killing two and injuring 13 when he allegedly opened fire at his high school in Santee, Calif.

Williams was to be tried as an adult in accordance with a California law that voters approved last year. His lawyers have decided to challenge. During the past decade, at least 40 states have decided to get tougher on juveniles, changing the rules so that they can be more easily tried as adults. Yes, some of these crimes are horrific. But will trying kids as adults solve the problem? NEWSWEEK's Laura Fording asked Professor Jack Levin, Director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston what he thinks.

NEWSWEEK: More and more we're hearing about kids being tried as adults. What has changed?

Jack Levin: There has been a movement, over the past two decades, to toughen laws on juvenile offenders. Most states allow waiving juveniles to adult court for a variety of offenses: personal, property, violent and nonviolent. Many states now permit prosecuting juveniles as adults even though they have committed only property offenses like burglary.

Why are we getting so tough?

Beginning in the mid '80s we went through a period where the rate of juvenile violence soared. As a result, many Americans were desperate for solutions. They were sick and tired of feeling like victims. And their first response was to come up with a get-tough, law-and-order approach. Ironically, since about 1993, many of the cities and towns across the nation have seen a reversal of this soaring crime rate.

Is there a higher rate of recidivism when youths are tried as adults?

Not only are juveniles tried as adults more likely to commit another crime, they are also more likely to commit a more serious crime than those tried as juveniles. One Florida study found that 30 percent of youths tried as adults were rearrested the year after they were released, compared to 19 percent of juveniles who were tried and sentenced within the juvenile system. Ninety-three percent of youths who were tried as adults and later rearrested committed felony offenses, serious crimes, the second time around. That's compared with only 85 percent of those who went through the juvenile system.

Why the increase?

Trying kids as adults sends the wrong message to youngsters. Some would say it sends the right message, that crimes have consequences. But juveniles actually get the message that there is no hope, that we've given up on them. Then we send them to adult correctional facilities, where they have contact with more serious hard-core offenders, from whom they learn the kinds of lessons we don't want them to learn. In most cases they will not receive the education or the treatment that they would need to be rehabilitated. They might even be harmed profoundly in a psychological or even a physical sense by the other inmates. And they certainly will be much more vulnerable to pressure from other inmates.

Couldn't that happen in the juvenile system too?

Any time you incarcerate people for breaking the law, you risk the possibility for providing them with the wrong kind of peer group. But the country is in a very punitive mood and when we just think of punishment and forget about the rehabilitative function of the juvenile justice system, we are more likely to produce just the kinds of monsters that we fear the most. Of course, the juvenile justice system also needs reform.

Do you think an attempt be made at rehabilitation for a child who murders? Or should they just be punished?

It depends. There are such hideous murders that they fall outside of our limits for tolerance. We as a society have to decide whether anyone who commits a hideous murder, for example, as sexually sadistic murder, with torture and rape, should to be tried as an adult. My problem is that we are doing much more than that. In the state of Vermont, for example, a 10-year-old who commits a property offense like burglary can be tried as an adult. In Colorado that is true of a 14-year-old. In Kansas, a 14-year-old who commits a drug offense can be tried as an adult. I understand that we need to reform the criminal justice system. But I think we've gone too far.

But the juvenile system has its own problems.

Thanks to an absence of support and especially an absence of economic support-money-the juvenile justice system has been deficient. It relies too much on toughness and not enough on education and rehabilitation. But as long as the youngster is in the juvenile system, he stands a chance for turning his life around. Once he gets into an adult correctional facility, for example, a state penitentiary, the chances of rehabilitation drop to close to zero.

Lionel Tate, the boy who received a life sentence for beating a 6-year-old girl to death when he was 12-do you think he understood what he was doing?

Children often don't think of consequences, whether it's getting lung cancer 30 years from now or spending 30 years behind bars. There is biological evidence that teenagers differ from adults in terms of the development of an area of the brain that is responsible for making human beings think about the consequences of their actions. I would call many teenagers who commit violent crimes temporary sociopaths, with the emphasis on the temporary. They'll commit a hideous crime at the age of 14 that they wouldn't dream of committing by the time they reached 24. There are 12-year-old boys who cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Even to the point of killing someone?

Some adults can't even tell the difference between reality and fantasy. I talked with two actors who are on the soap opera, "Days of Our Lives." [They told me that] when a couple on the show gets married, they get hundreds of gifts...and when there is a pregnancy, thousands of gifts are sent for the baby. We are talking about adults here! Even the actors were startled. So certainly there are youngsters who have a great deal of trouble establishing the difference between fantasy and reality, even to the point where they might kill.

Do the courts try to figure out whether the kid was living in some sort of fantasy before trying him as an adult?

They should, because we have exclusions in this country based on the ability of a defendant to appreciate the criminality of his behavior. We don't lock away 5-year-old children because we understand that they don't understand. A 12-year-old is a marginal case. But they really may not to be able to appreciate the criminality of their behavior. In a court of law, you have to be able to know the difference between right and wrong and know that what you did was wrong. And you have to be able to control your behavior. If someone doesn't meet those criteria, they are declared insane and they do to a mental hospital, no matter how old they are.

According to deathpenaltyinfo.org, 74 inmates who were sentenced as juveniles are currently on death row and seventeen men have been executed for crimes they committed as juveniles since 1976. Should the death penalty be used on people who commit crimes as kids?

Once we send the child into the adult system, anything goes. If we are in a state that has the death penalty and the defendant, no matter how old he is, has been convicted of first degree murder, then he may very well be eligible to pay the ultimate price.

What about kids like Andy Williams, the 15-year-old who is charged with killing two people at his high school in Santee, California?

I don't think we know enough about Williams at this point to determine his state of mind. I think he really needs to be examined over a period of time by the experts.

In an ideal world, what's your solution?

For most juveniles we would ideally focus on rehabilitating them. That means creative alternative sentencing, especially for first offenders and community service, education and victim restitution, or having to pay back the families of the victims. I'm talking about first offenders, and not necessarily murderers. For the few who kill in a premeditated, cold-blooded fashion, and who are likely to do it again, I think we need an intermediate sentence. We don't want to give up on them with a life sentence or the death penalty, but we also don't want them on the streets in a few years. The point is that we give them a chance to mature and develop into adults. But the ideal would be to get them long before they've committed murder. Once a child has murderous intentions there isn't much we can really do. You know these warning signs that everybody talks about? We ought to be using the warning signs years earlier, not to punish children, but to help them. Then we wouldn't be having this conversation.