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An Epidemic of Violence



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Juvenile Crime… Trying Time Adult Time for Children's Crime?


A young protester expresses his concern.

We've all heard it on the news… "Another school shooting." The first one I remember is the Colorado Columbine shooting which happened in 1999. I was a Kindergarten teacher and the thought of a shooting at a school absolutely terrified me. The most recent shooting I remember was as recent as a couple of months ago. I was with the US Trek and saw it on the news. This time it was in San Diego, California, not far from where my three-year-old goddaughter lives. Even when it's far away, it still all seems so close. And these are just the incidents that the media chooses to show us. What about the gang violence that has plagued inner city neighborhoods and schools for decades?


The Day I Spent In Juvie - this was definitely not my scene

It's all happening both to and by kids. The response from the establishment has been to make tougher laws and in some instances to put minors before an adult court. There are people who believe that if a young person commits an adult crime, he or she should be tried and sentenced as an adult. There are others who believe that a young person deserves a second chance. I believe there are no easy answers.

Some, who have already made up their minds, have worked to get laws passed that make it easier for kids to be tried as adults. Since 1993, at least 43 states have implemented such laws. In fact, just last year, California passed its version of this principle, Proposition 21. Why did Californians want to allow more young people to be tried as adults? Former Governor Pete Wilson, who launched the legislation, was quoted saying, "We must make clear to the violent, youthful offenders-the ones who just don't want to be saved-that California will not tolerate their depravity. …And will impose adult time for adult crime." Proponents believe that the tougher laws are the only way to protect families and communities because they harshen the consequences for violent crimes. This means that according to these laws, if a young person is sentenced in adult court, he or she could go to prison for life.

What do you think? If a minor commits an adult crime, should he or she be punished as an adult?

Are we headed down the wrong road when it comes to helping our youth?
The day that I am writing this dispatch (April 20, 2001), Andy Williams's lawyers are at the El Cajon Superior Courthouse trying to overturn the Prop 21 decision to try him as an adult. On March 5, 2001, 15-year-old Andy allegedly went into his high school and opened fire, killing 2 students and wounding 13 others. According to activist, Steve Trotto, if Prop 21 is overturned, it will set precedent for other cases across the country. This would be a victory for opponents of minors being tried as adults. The judge's decision is scheduled to be made on April 27, which means by the time you read this, you should be able to read about it in the news.

I went to the courthouse this morning and found a group of protesters outside the courthouse doors. Through making signs and talking to newscasters (and trekkers), the protesters said that they don't want Andy, or any children at all, to be tried as an adult. Some of them were students just like Andy, some were schoolteachers, and some were citizens concerned about the direction our juvenile system is headed. Most people I talked to about Prop 21 said that it tries to be a "one size fits all" solution but that every case is different and should be looked at separately.

This elementary school teacher doesn't believe a 15 year old should be tried as an adult.
One of the protesters was a first grade teacher. She stood with a sign that read, "15 is Not an Adult." She told the newscasters, "He is a child. How can we treat him as an adult when he is not an adult? …We've decided in very calm moments to let people vote at a certain age, drive at a certain age. But in anger, we decide to try children as adults. It doesn't solve the problems of the nation to lock him up." Another young protester shyly spoke to the cameras, "All they're doing is throwing another life away."

As with any heated controversial issue though, not everyone feels the same as these protestors do.

Historically, the juvenile system was put in place because our society recognized that children are different than adults. They may not have the mental maturity to understand the consequences of their actions. Also, because they are young, there is a better chance to rehabilitate them. Looking at California as an example, the juvenile system and the adult system are very different. I met with Frank Janowicz, a former cop, who now teaches kids in juvenile hall in Los Angeles. He said that the California Youth Authority provides a lot of education programs. "You can learn to be a plumber or an electrician for example, but the adult corrections programs have no such opportunities." According to Janowicz, the adult facilities used to offer educational programs, but in 1995 former Governor Wilson passed a bill that cut funding for them. The opportunity for minors to receive rehabilitation within the adult system seems bleak. If we put minors in adult jails, are we giving up on them? I asked former L.A. gang member Oscar what he thought of trying Andy as an adult. He responded, "They have to give him another chance. He's just a little kid. He can change. How is he gonna fly? He's like a little bird. If he's in jail, he can't fly."

Oscar used to be in a gang.  He says you can't fly free if you're in prison
Statistics on the outcomes of young people in adult jails are frightening. In an adult institution, young prisoners are subject to physical and sexual assault by older prisoners. Minors are more likely to commit a second crime if they have been in an adult system rather than a juvenile one. (Being surrounded by hardened criminals is hardly a way to grow up to be a healthy citizen of our country.) Then there are the statistics regarding race... It is more common for a minority offender to be tried as an adult than a white offender. And no matter what your ethnic background, studies show that a young person sent to adult prison is more likely to commit suicide. These are scary facts-all of them. But the fact that matters the most still remains: Young people continue to commit violent crimes and our society needs to deal with them.

As I did my research for this dispatch, I kept coming across words like "punishment" and "rehabilitation" but in all of these arguments, nowhere did I see the word "prevention." The day of the Columbine shootings, my colleagues and I discussed a kindergarten student at my school. He had exhibited a violent temper already at the age of five. His teacher wanted to get him tested in order to give him support from the school psychologist. But without the consent of his parents, the school could do nothing. By the time he was in first grade, he was suspended for assaulting another student. Eventually he did leave our school and the last that I heard, he was being home-schooled by his parents. We felt so powerless in trying to help this student as we wondered if he too was headed down the path of these other young people who eventually end up committing violent crimes. A difficult road lies ahead of us when young people feel their only outlet is violence. But instead of focusing on reacting to these crimes, maybe it's time we started focusing on preventing them.


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Nick - The birth of gangs: a violent reaction to poverty
Stephanie - Military boot camps for teens gone bad
Irene - Don't mess with Texas or 'Old Sparky' may call for you!
Neda - The prison industry - too many people, too many prisons
Nick - Police brutality is a problem that needs our attention