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Don't Give Up On Youths

February 26, 2006
Opinion By Courant

Connecticut is one of only three states that treats teenagers as adults if they commit crimes between the ages of 16 and 18.

Under state law, a teenager who gets into a fight or steals at 15 will be under the jurisdiction of juvenile court system and eligible for services such as schooling, alternative sentencing, mental health and rehabilitative treatment. However, if he commits the same crimes at 16, he could spend hard time in the Manson Youth Institute.

Despite its name, Manson is an adult prison ringed with razor wire. Youths are incarcerated alongside adult criminals. They do not get treatment equal to the type dispensed by the juvenile courts.

Last summer's suicide by a 17-year-old male with a history of mental illness is a sad reminder of the potential consequences. David Burgos was sent to Manson for violating probation after he was allegedly caught stealing. After four months, he hanged himself with his bedsheet.

The Burgos case has called attention to the risk of incarcerating young people in inappropriate settings. Youths are eight times more likely to commit suicide in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities.

If the state is serious about rehabilitating criminals, this policy of treating nonviolent young offenders as hardened criminals must go. As one advocate seeking to change the system wisely observed, putting young people in such settings is tantamount to saying, "We've given up on you."

Available statistics show that in 2002, nearly 13,000 16- and 17-year-olds were arrested in Connecticut, just 5 percent for violent crimes. A change in the law to raise the age of adulthood to 18 would not be soft on those who commit heinous crimes such as murder, forcible rape, negligent homicide, aggravated assault and robbery. They would still be tried as adults, as they should be. But it would increase the chances of saving the savable.

The vast majority of young offenders would be better off paying for their mistakes in a supportive educational program that is both less costly and less traumatic. Not surprisingly, youths incarcerated in an adult prison are more likely to commit additional crimes than those who are tried and treated as juveniles.

Recent studies in adolescent psychology show what parents of teenagers have long deduced: Adolescent brains are immature, given to impulsivity and poor judgment, and with an undeveloped sense of responsibility. This research was the basis for a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to spare juvenile offenders capital punishment. It should be a guide for policy-makers deciding on appropriate accountability for youths who break the law.

Raising the age of juvenile offenders won't be cheap because of the need for more services. But the cost of the present system in lost promise is much steeper.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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