Anthony Talbert was 15 when a Virginia judge declared him an adult.
The scrawny, brown-eyed boy from Alexandria, charged with the August slaying of a junior high school friend, was first sent to juvenile court. There, a prosecutor last month successfully argued that "justice would be better served" if the eighth-grader stood trial as an adult. In the closed hearing, Alexandria Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Joseph L. Peters Jr. agreed.
Despite the tears of his mother and the objections from the probation officer who pleaded that the impoverished, learning-disabled youth could be rehabilitated, Peters transferred the case to Alexandria Circuit Court, an adult criminal court, where Talbert is scheduled to stand trial Jan. 3.
In the juvenile system, which presumes that an offender can become a productive citizen, Talbert would have been eligible for counseling, educational training and a variety of supervised programs designed to foster responsibility. If convicted, he would have been imprisoned for no more than six years in a juvenile detention facility. As an adult, he may receive none of those services, and he could spend his life in prison.
Court transfers such as Talbert's are becoming increasingly common, a result of what observers say is society's general get-tough attitude on crime. Ironically, this hard-line approach, which began to show up in court decisions about five years ago, coincides with a major decrease in serious crime among juveniles as the number of those in the below-18 age group has decreased.
Judges, criminal analysts and organizations such as the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives are working to reverse the trend, saying the pendulum has swung too far in punishing juveniles. Neither justice nor juveniles are served when young offenders are denied the second chance provided by the juvenile system's confidentiality, counseling and other programs, they say.
In the 1990s, even more juveniles, from the "echo baby-boom," may mean more juvenile crime, compounding the problem, experts say.
Others in the criminal justice system are satisfied that juveniles who commit serious crimes should be treated as adults. "A few years ago we finally realized that some people liked the life of crime and weren't going to change no matter what we did," said Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney John Kloch.
David Dunlap, the Alexandria prosecutor who handles most of the city's juvenile cases, said, "Juveniles who commit adult crimes should be tried as adults. The kids who commit rape and murder are past help." Like many others who support the idea of trying juveniles alongside adults, Dunlap argues: "The fact that the kid was under 18 doesn't make a heck of a lot of difference to the victim."
" 'Put the bastards in jail. Get them off the streets.' That's what the public is saying," said Judge Peters. "But where do you put them? I sit there and see the same kid time after time and know the juvenile system isn't effective. Yet, by anyone's account, the adult court is an abysmal failure."
In Alexandria, the number of juveniles tried as adults has more than doubled in the past two years, from 15 to 39.
Statistics compiled by the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh show the number of juveniles transferred to adult courts rose 20 percent between 1975 and 1982, the latest year for which national figures are available. In 1975, 10,400 were transferred and in 1982, 13,000.
Hunter Hurst, the center's director, says the actual number of juveniles who stand trial as adults may be "100 times higher" because, he says, even the best national statistics are flawed. Many states automatically consider juveniles who commit violent crimes as adults and those youths are not included in most reported figures, he says. In the last five years alone, Hurst says an estimated 21 states adopted laws allowing for the automatic transfer of juveniles to adult courts.
The number of juveniles who stand trial as adults in many Northern Virginia localities, Maryland and the District could not be obtained. "Once they are charged as adults, nobody keeps age figures on them," said Steven Cohen, an official in Baltimore's Juvenile Court division. "They are all thrown in together in one big hopper."
In Prince George's County, where some statistics are available, 166 juvenile cases were transferred to adult courts in 1983, up from 62 in 1980.
A federally funded survey completed in 1982 showed that 12,300 juveniles were referred to adult court in 1978. Though the popular perception is that only the most exceptional or brutal cases are tried in adult court, the study found that a far larger number of juveniles tried as adults were charged with lesser, nonpersonal crimes. Only 32 percent were charged with murder, forcible rape, robbery or aggravated assault.
About 21 states in the last five years have toughened their laws against juveniles. Yet, violent crime among juveniles has fallen by 13.6 percent since 1978, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. Over the same period, murders dropped by 21 percent and robberies by 144 percent.
Ideally, Peters said, the juvenile system would be improved and expanded to deal with youths who commit serious crimes. This "crackdown trend may be coming full cycle. We are realizing that treating kids in a system that we know has failed for adults doesn't work and costs too much," he said.
Francis X. Hartmann, chairman of the Harvard Executive Session on the Future of Juvenile Justice, is brainstorming the topic of juvenile justice with a group of judges, youth corrections officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys in the hope of finding better solutions for the 1990s. No one wants to "give a young convicted murderer a hand-slapping," Hartmann said recently. "He is going to have to pay in some way."
But punishing in the purely punitive sense of adult court may be counterproductive, according to Mark H. Moore, a professor of criminal justice policy at Harvard. Moore said he believes in the original concept behind juvenile court: Young offenders committing the same crime as an adult are not as responsible because they lack the same intent. "Their values are still changing. They are more easily influenced by circumstance. They should be held less accountable," he said.
He suggests a solution may lie in community retributive projects where youths can foster a sense of responsibility and pay for their crime.
"The community has said to the courts, 'Here, deal with this problem.' " Moore said. "Now that we know the courts cannot do it alone, it's time the community shoulders some of the responsibility."
"If you look at most of the kids committing crime, and a lot of it is theft, they are the have-nots," said Peters. "They come from single-parent homes; they're poor. What they need is guidance and training."
In Talbert's case, the mother is unemployed and the father is absent from the home. According to court records, the stepfather who lived with him for seven years served time in the state penitentiary. His home, a small attached house just north of the Capital Beltway in the Cameron Valley section of Alexandria, offers him little chance to escape the litter of beer cans and clusters of idle youths who roam the public housing project.
Lillian Brooks, the director of Alexandria's juvenile probation department, said, "If we had money for jobs, recreational, rehabilitative programs, we could help more of them."
Jerome Miller, the director of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, a nonprofit corrections group, said the lack of funding for juvenile programs is discriminatory. Middle- and upper-class families can afford to pay for attorneys to prove that their children are emotionally disturbed and can offer to take the burden off the court by putting them in a psychiatric hospital if necessary. "But you don't see many black, low-income kids in those hospitals," Miller said. "They're in jail."
Miller, who has headed the state youth corrections departments in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, said it costs between $25,000 and $30,000 to keep a person in jail for one year, depending on the facility. At that rate, Miller said, "We are spending more money destroying poor kids than wealthy parents pay for the rehabilitation of theirs."
Though a 1980 federal law requires that all juveniles be removed from adult institutions by 1985, Judith Johnson, the director of the National Coalition for Jail Reform, says the lack of adequate facilities and funding makes that mandate impossible to meet.
As of June 30, there were 6,392 juveniles in adult facilities nationwide, according the American Corrections Association. That figure, however, is underestimated because three states and the District did not reply to the survey, and, as Miller points out, many states list juveniles as adults if they have been tried as adults.
After tracking 24,000 youths over a 20-year period as part of a study of juvenile delinquency, Marvin Wolfgang, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said that if he were forced to choose between placing a young, violent offender in the adult system or the juvenile system, "I'd rather use age as a basis. There are very few who are committing most of the hard-core crimes."
"We can't build a system around a couple of individual cases," Hartmann said. In recommending changes in the justice system of the next decade, he said, "We are going to have to decide as a society whether juvenile court or adult court does the least harm to the least number of people."
As the echo baby boom of the 1990s appproaches, "We have to ask ourselves soon, are children really the same as adults?"