Losing sight of the big picture
It was money, not biology, which inspired state leaders to change the age for trying adult criminals. The governor and the legislature wrestled to control a budget that is millions of dollars out of balance every year, because spending continues to outstrip tax revenue.
No one, Carcieri included, argues that the ACI and adult courts are better for 17-year-olds.
“This was one of those very difficult proposals the governor put forward as one piece of a larger effort to solve the state’s budget problem,” says Carcieri spokesman Jeff Neal. “It’s not clear to me he would have put forward this proposal if the circumstances were different.”
The General Assembly brushed off an 11th-hour attempt by Rhode Island Kids Count, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others to keep 17-year-olds within the Family Court and the Training School systems. The groups are still pushing for a reversal, should the legislature reconvene before January to deal with a series of Carcieri vetoes.
Many experts say the change will hurt 17-year-olds, and cost taxpayers more money in the long run.
Donna Bishop, a professor at Northeast¬ern University’s College of Criminal Justice, says seven major studies show that juveniles generally fare worse after going through adult-oriented systems than those in systems geared for young people. Young persons in adult systems are more likely to “re-offend,” or commit new crimes, to do so more quickly, and more often, Bishop says.
One drawback faced by young offenders, she says, is how they earn adult criminal records. That means they will have a harder time finding jobs and getting married.
In adult prison, the young offenders are offered fewer rehabilitative programs, says Bishop, whiling time away in an atmosphere that is far less positive and encouraging than might be the case in a juvenile program.
These are themes echoed by other experts.
“Adolescents are not young adults, and once a juvenile goes into the adult system, and has a felony record, that can really affect their lives,” says Dr. Joseph Penn, director of psychiatric services at the Rhode Island Training School and a Brown professor.
Penn says the majority of those treated by the juvenile system are able to get their lives in order: staying out of trouble, and earning a living. “A lot of kids just make bad decisions, and don’t really think about the consequences of their actions,” he says. “And it takes a while, until you get older, to begin to develop the kind of moral insight and judgment into what you are doing.”
Another critic is Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, who in his first term used his discretionary power to seek Family Court permission to treat juveniles as adults 46 times, out of a total of 12,753 cases.
“Just like in the adult world, there are some people on this planet that are so evil and commit such heinous acts” they should be treated with adult-level sanctions, Lynch says. In those instances, he says, “I don’t lose a wink of sleep.”
Yet the AG is opposed to a wholesale sweep of 17-year-olds into the adult system. He, too, worries about the possible damage that a public, adult-style criminal record can have on a young person’s chances of moving forward in his or her life.
“It will ultimately prove more costly, literally from an economic, budgetary perspective,” Lynch says. “But I would argue even further that the untold impact — and perhaps, unmeasurable from a budgetary perspective — on the quality of life of Rhode Islanders is going to cost us dearly as well.”