The 15-year-old boy arrested in the school shooting in Springfield, Ore., will be charged as an adult and could face a life sentence; the 11- and 13-year-olds in the similarly chilling shooting in Jonesboro, Ark., in March are being prosecuted as juveniles and could be released when they are 18.
The difference is not just the few years' difference in age. Instead, the different treatment reflects fast-changing American attitudes about how to cope with violent children and widely differing approaches that have been put into practice across the country.
Of the different approaches, the sterner view that juveniles who commit heinous crimes should face the same sanctions as adults is clearly winning.
In many states in recent years, there has been a sharp retreat from a notion that held sway for much of this century: that children were less culpable than adults and had a greater capacity to be cured of anti-social behavior.
"We've lost our faith in the rehabilitative ideal, and that loss of faith has come from the left and the right," said Martin Guggenheim, a professor at New York University School of Law who is a specialist in juvenile justice issues.
Since 1994, 43 states have changed their laws to make it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults and half the states no longer have any minimum age for adult criminal offenses, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization in Washington.
After the schoolyard killings in Arkansas, a Texas state legislator proposed amending Texas law to permit the death penalty for murderers as young as 11.
In Michigan, prosecutors are seeking a life sentence in the case of an 11-year-old boy charged with shooting and killing an 18-year-old neighbor. At the time of his arrest in late October, the 11-year-old, Nathaniel Abraham, was wearing Halloween makeup.
"Every few years, there's a 'juvenile justice crisis,' " said Jason Zeidenberg, a researcher at the Justice Policy Institute, "but we have never seen a gnawing at the edges of the notion that kids should be treated separately as dramatically as we are seeing it now."
Juvenile justice experts say moves to treat young offenders more like adults often follow incidents like the Oregon shootings because such incidents focus public attention on juvenile crime. But the experts are deeply divided about their value.
In Oregon on Friday, Dale Koch, a family and juvenile court judge in Portland, said Oregon's move four years ago to require adult treatment of defendants over age 15 who are charged with certain felonies "was the wrong answer to the problem."
"Anytime you eliminate discretion and the individual approach, there's a problem," he said.
Koch, like many critics of the trend toward adult treatment, spoke about the thousands of crimes teen-agers commit that are more mundane than the rare mass shooting that attracts national attention. Under Oregon law, he said, a teen-ager convicted of robbery of a bicycle would be sentenced to more than five years in a penitentiary unless there was a plea bargain.
Of teen-agers who are incarcerated with adults, Koch said: "Look at who they're living with. They're living with criminals, and that's what they're going to learn to be."
But in New York City, Peter Reinharz, the chief of the city's juvenile prosecution unit, said that while adult treatment of teen-agers was not necessarily the answer, it was clear that leniency had failed to bring any lessening of juvenile crime.
Data show that the teen-age years are volatile, Reinharz said, yet under New York law an 11-year-old convicted of murder would be sentenced to a maximum of 18 months. That sentence could be renewed only until the defendant reached 18 years of age. So a teen-ager could go to prison and still come out a teen-ager, with a statistically higher chance of committing a crime again.
"The juvenile justice system," Reinharz said, "has created a system in which people who are most likely to be recidivist are spending the least amount of time away from society."
The debate is not only about practical consequences of prosecution. It also reflects a deep philosophical split about the purpose of criminal prosecution.
The first juvenile court, which opened in Chicago in 1899, ushered in a decades-long movement aimed at correcting what were perceived as the injustices from the processing of children charged with crimes in adult courts and prisons.
That movement dominated the thinking about juvenile justice for decades.
It held that children who committed crimes could not necessarily form the malevolent intent of their adult counterparts and that, through counseling, education and retraining, they could be given the benefit of a fresh start.
Guggenheim of New York University School of Law said that approach was consistent with society's general approach toward children, who are treated differently from adults in such areas as making financial decisions, voting or driving.
But when a backlash against juvenile crime began in the 1970s and 1980s, critics found a ready culprit in what they said was the permissive attitude of the juvenile justice system.
Long before the schoolyard shootings, there were media images of tough teen-agers who played the system's weaknesses. In the movies, and sometimes on the real streets, adult drug dealers used children as couriers because children were immune from meaningful prosecution.
At the same time, attitudes about the criminal justice system generally changed. There was increased emphasis on victims and decreasing interest in the fate of perpetrators.
Reinharz, the prosecutor, said that in his career he had seldom met a victim who cared whether he had been beaten by a 15-year-old or a 35-year-old: "People bleed the same whether their attacker was a kid or an adult."
In most states, the move toward harsher treatment of juvenile offenders is popular politically. The Oregon law was changed by a ballot initiative to require adult treatment for serious offenses.
But to some academics and other juvenile justice experts, the changes in the law are alarming. They say that adult treatment of juveniles creates a false sense of security because people think the problem has been solved.
Instead, some of the experts said, studies in Florida, New York and elsewhere show that teen-agers convicted of adult crimes were sexually and physically abused in prison, permanently labeled as criminals and denied access to juvenile rehabilitative services.
Because most criminals of any age are eventually released from prison, some critics of the changes in the law say society is simply creating a cadre of young and hopeless predators.
Pub Date: 5/24/98