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
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.
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