Report: Youth Imprisonment Doubles
By Anjetta McQueen
AP Education Writer
Monday, Feb. 28, 2000; 1:51 a.m. EST WASHINGTON As states moved steadily to prosecute more young people as adults, the number of prison inmates under 18 more than doubled between 1985 and 1997.
In 1985, 3,400 youths 17 or younger were committed to adult prisons on conviction in either juvenile or adult courts. By 1997, the number of such youths had more than doubled to 7,400, the Justice Department reported Sunday.
Young inmates by no means are overrunning the prisons' adult population of 2 million, and just 5 percent of all young offenders serve sentences in adult facilities, researchers said. But data suggest that today's violent young offenders are more likely to do prison time than in years past.
That's partly because of an increasing number of state laws that take away their legal status as minors and make them more accountable, researchers say. The crackdown, fueled in part by high-profile school violence, has placed children as young as 11 on trial in criminal courts.
"Many states have increased the number of provisions that allow juveniles to be handled in the adult system," said report author Kevin J. Strom, a researcher with the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The report, based on state prison records reported annually to the Justice Department, noted that while 37 states and the District of Columbia consider 18-year-olds adults for criminal purposes, most also allow "certain categories of offenders under 18 to be incarcerated in adult prisons and housed with older inmates."
Debate continues to rage over the merits of handing out adult punishments for legally classified youth who commit crimes. Californians will vote March 7 on a ballot proposal that would make it easier to charge juveniles as young as 14 as adults for serious crimes and impose life sentences.
"There's some justification for public frustration with the juvenile system," said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a think tank opposed to mandatory sentencing. "But sending them to the adult system en masse is no solution. It's hardly a resounding success for the people it's got."
Yearly youth commitments to prison climbed steadily between 1986 and 1995, then leveled off, the report said. Over the years, more youths were imprisoned relative to the number arrested. In 1997, 33 youths were sent to prison for every 1,000 arrests for violent crimes, up from the 18 per 1,000 in 1985.
Seven in 10 young offenders who received adult punishment in 1997, the latest year state prison records were available, were convicted of violent crimes. Of that total, 37 percent were jailed for robbery, 13 percent for murder and 13 percent for aggravated assault, the report said.
The inmate data do not specify whether young offenders are convicted in juvenile or adult courts, but Strom said it is known that a small percentage go from the juvenile courts to adult incarceration.
Historically, young offenders' fates were mostly decided by juvenile court judges. But after a spate of drug-gang violence and school shootings in the last decade, state lawmakers decided adult prisons could more effectively deal with violent or chronic youth offenders.
Since 1992, 30 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that in certain instances send kids directly to criminal court. Through 1998, despite a 50 percent drop in the juvenile murder arrest rate, many states also gave criminal prosecutors increased power to bypass the century-old juvenile system or chipped away at options juvenile judges had for keeping youth cases in their courts.
© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press