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A CHILD'S MIND AND ADULT TIME



Published: Tue, May 22, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: Soon after they convicted Nathaniel Brazill of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his teacher on Wednesday, jurors noted something troubled them throughout deliberations: The boy didn't seem to belong there.

They expressed anguish that they had little choice but to provide an exceedingly adult punishment -- a sentence of 25 years to life -- for a boy who was just hitting puberty at the time of his crime.

"Knowing what I know now, I would say he should have been tried as a juvenile," juror Dennis Franqui said in Thursday's South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "He was a juvenile. He's a male 13-year-old growing up, and the hormones were kicking in. He seemed like a kid. He had no history of violence."

If those comments carry a familiar ring, it is because they largely echo what jurors serving on the case of Lionel Tate said back in February. Because he was charged as an adult and because of stringent mandatory sentencing laws there, Tate received a term of life in prison without possibility of parole for the beating death of a 6-year-old playmate.

Stringent laws: Could someone so young and naturally impulsive be considered beyond rehabilitation? That is exactly what is happening -- in Florida, in Illinois and elsewhere -- as states rush to pass more stringent laws making it easier to charge children as adults, rather than treating them like the still-developing adolescents they are. Such laws cede almost complete control of their fate to prosecutors (who, rather than judges, decide whether to charge the youths as juveniles or adults) and politicians (who, rather than leaving it up to judges, increasingly are determining sentences for certain crimes.)

So how many more frustrated juries will it take before legislators begin getting the message?

More appropriate alternatives exist for children such as these. The best is a blended sentencing option used effectively in states such as Michigan. Illinois has established it, too, but has almost never used it.

Under a blended sentence, a convicted minor would spend all the years up to adulthood -- 18 or 21 -- in a juvenile detention facility, where he would be more likely to receive schooling, psychological and rehabilitative services than he would in adult prison.

By the time he reached adulthood, he would undergo another hearing to determine how well he had rehabilitated himself. If successful, a judge could decide to release him on probation; if not, the youth could be transferred to adult court to serve out the rest of his sentence. Such blended sentences protect the public and acknowledge the need to recognize that children are children, and don't have the capacity of an adult.

That's not to say children shouldn't be punished. The current zeal to try to convict minors in adult court suggests that many people have lost faith in the ability of juvenile courts to adequately handle serious offenses. That faith must be restored with a sense that the courts offer the possibility of rehabilitation, but the promise that grave offenses will carry serious punishment.




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