Juvenile offenders can face adult penalties

When a 15-year-old Albany boy, Jermayne Timmons, was arrested in the shooting death of 10-year-old K
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When a 15-year-old Albany boy, Jermayne Timmons, was arrested in the shooting death of 10-year-old Kathina Thomas, he was charged as an adult.

At his arraignment Wednesday, Albany County District Attorney David Soares said: “One bullet. Two lives. One young lady dead and another young man who we believe at the end of the day will eventually spend the rest of his life in prison.”

It wasn’t always this way.

The state’s 1978 Juvenile Offender Law lowered the age of criminal responsibility to 13 for murder and 14 for rape, robbery, assault and violent categories of burglary. It was enacted in response to the case of Willie Bosket, a 15-year-old with a lengthy arrest record who robbed and killed a subway passenger. Because he was 15, he could not be charged in New York’s criminal court, and as a delinquent, he could only be confined for a maximum of five years.

“What’s happened over the years is that people have started looking to the criminal justice system to solve societal problems that it was never intended to solve,” said Laurie Shanks, clinical professor of law at Albany Law School. “We have a generation of children who have learned to use violence to solve problems. This is a systemic problem. This is not a problem of one child in Albany.

“We really want to punish,” Shanks continued. “It used to be with juveniles we wanted rehabilitation. You wanted to reform behavior and make a child part of the community.”

In 1899, the first court of law dedicated exclusively to children was established in Chicago.

Up until then, children were tried in criminal courts just like adults, and the court in Chicago marked the start of a new approach to children and crime. By 1915, 46 states had established their own juvenile courts to deal with youth who had broken the law. Today every state has a separate juvenile justice system where records are sealed and the goal is rehabilitation.

Harsher punishment

But in recent decades, attitudes toward children and crime have shifted, and the system has become more punitive and unforgiving. Juveniles are now routinely treated as adults when charged with more serious violent crimes such as murder and rape.

“For many, many years, people really believed in a juvenile justice system,” said Simon Singer, a professor in Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice.

Singer is the author of a book, “Recriminalizing Delinquency: Violent Juvenile Crime and Juvenile Justice Reform,” that examines the impact of the 1978 Juvenile Offender Law. Politically, Singer said, these changes “sounded good.” But in reality they did little to hold juveniles accountable for their offenses or reduce the rate of violent juvenile crime, he said.

In his research, Singer found that the likelihood that juveniles would be prosecuted in adult criminal court varied according to race, gender and county. Juveniles arrested for certain crimes in Albany County, he found, were more likely to be prosecuted in adult criminal court as juvenile offenders than those arrested for the same offenses in Erie County. The arrest rate of juvenile offenders in Albany County was 93 per 100,000 juveniles, compared to 35 per 100,000 in Erie County.

“Albany was tough,” Singer said. “That could be considered good news. You could say they were following the letter of the law.”

Singer’s book came out in 1996, and much of his research was based on data from the 1980s, so it’s possible things have changed. For his book, he interviewed teenagers who had received life sentences for murder and were living at a maximum security juvenile prison in Buffalo. Although by and large juveniles were more likely to be prosecuted as adults in New York if they were black or Hispanic, many of these teens were white. He suggested that this was due to the high-profile nature of their crimes.

“Murders are more likely to be public,” he said. “Prosecutors are less likely to be in a position where they can say, ‘We didn’t want to ruin this kid’s life.’ ” With cases that don’t see the same level of attention, such as robberies, prosecutors are more likely to be flexible, but inconsistencies and bias are more likely to go unnoticed, he said.

CONSISTENCY

Singer said he supports bringing consistency to the justice system by treating all people under the age of 18 as juveniles, rather than deciding things on a case-by-case basis. “The problem with deciding things case-by-case is that it works to the disadvantage of those who grow up in unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “Right now, the system is quite loose and inconsistent in terms of its mission.” He said he plans to revisit the teenagers he interviewed for “Recriminalizing Delinquency” and see what became of them.

A 2005 Supreme Court decision, Roper vs. Simmons, struck down the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds as unconstitutional. The decision cited scientific evidence indicating that there are developmental differences between teenagers and adults, with teenagers far less able to gauge risks and consequences, control their impulses or resist peer pressure.

“That decision essentially said that we were going to set a categorical bar for how we think about juveniles under the age of 18,” Singer said. A minority on the court disagreed with the decision, arguing that 16- and 17-year-olds are as sophisticated as adults and should be treated as such. Their reasoning, he suggested, often boiled down to the old adage that “if you’re old enough to do the crime, you’re old enough to do the time.”

New York Law School Professor Robert Blecker believes that some crimes are so heinous that people under the age of 18 should be executed if they commit them. In an article titled “A Poster Child For Us,” he looks at the case of Mark Anthony Duke, an Alabama teenager who was 16 when he shot his father and his father’s girlfriend and slit the throats of their young daughters. Sentenced to die, Duke was moved off death row after the 2005 Supreme Court decision; he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

These murders, Blecker said, were so brutal and calculated — Duke enlisted several friends to help him, broke down a bathroom door to get to one of the victims, attended the movie “Scream” later that evening to establish an alibi and ransacked the house to make it look like a burglary had occurred before calling the police — that Duke deserves to die. At 16, Duke knew what he was doing, Blecker said. “If Mark Anthony Duke had been 14, would I say we should execute him? No,” he said. “There’s a big difference between 14 and [16].”

increasing crime

Liz Ryan, chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, an advocacy group pushing to end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating people under the age of 18 in the adult prison system, said research shows that juveniles who are prosecuted as adults are more likely to re-offend as adults.

“We view this as a public safety issue,” Ryan said. “If we’re trying to reduce crime, what we’re doing is increasing it.” The juvenile system, she said, is much different from the adult system. The juvenile system is geared toward rehabilitation; the judges are trained to work with youth.

“The juvenile system has flaws, but it’s a much better place for children,” she said. “By contrast, the adult system is geared toward punishment. There’s little in the way of rehabilitative services.” Youth are more resilient than adults, she said, which means their capacity for rehabilitation is high. “Very few kids are beyond rehabilitation,” she said.

A study published last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that youth who have been tried as adults are, on average, 34 percent more likely to commit crimes than youth retained in the juvenile judicial system.

Police allege Timmons, 15, fired a bullet from a .45-caliber handgun on May 29 and it traveled more than a block, striking Thomas in the back as she played in front of her home on First Street. He allegedly told police he encountered a group near First Street and thought he saw someone pulling out a gun. He then retrieved a gun that he claimed everyone in the neighborhood used; this gun, he said, was kept in a garbage can in front of the Ida Yarborough public housing development.

Heather Orth, a spokeswoman for District Attorney David Soares, said Timmons is being treated as an adult for two reasons: “It’s in accordance with the law, and it’s a murder.”

The 1978 Juvenile Offender law also allowed criminal-justice officials discretion in charging a juvenile as an adult; juveniles who were considered amenable to treatment in the juvenile justice system could be sent to that system through a process known as a reverse waiver.

If convicted, Timmons would face a maximum of 15 years to life in prison, with a minimum of 7 1⁄2 years to life. The sentencing guidelines are different because of his age. If he was an adult, he would face 25 years to life in prison.

“To a lot of people, the possibility of a 15-year-old getting a life sentence is quite severe,” Singer said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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