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Screwing the youth

When the budget gets tight, young people become an easy target  
By BRIAN C. JONES  |  August 20, 2007

Wole Akinbi was 16 when someone phoned to say his best friend had been shot.
He turned on the TV, and sure enough, there was footage showing rescue workers sliding someone into an ambulance. He could tell who it was. The pictures showed Barry Ferrell’s favorite green sneakers.
Ferrell, 18, had been Akinbi’s mentor in a summer jobs program, and his murder has shaped Akinbi’s life in the two years since.
Akinbi, who lives near the State House, in Providence’s Smith Hill neighborhood, linked up with the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, conducting his high school’s mandatory internship there and working at the institute in the summer.
Now, newly 18 himself and counting down the weeks until he starts college this fall, Akinbi has as a unique vantage point on the debate about how Rhode Island treats teenagers, in particular whether 17-year-olds should be steered into adult or youth prisons.

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“If you are ‘brave’ enough to do it — to carry out a murder — you should be tried as an adult,” he says somewhat bitterly. “If you are going to walk around with a knife in your back pocket, because you know that you are ready to stab somebody, by all means, go to the ACI.”
But Akinbi makes a big U-turn when he considers the suspect, 16 at the time, who allegedly killed Ferrell.
“Now, for the person who shot Barry — everyone said it was mistaken ID — the kid probably didn’t mean to kill Barry, so, in his case, I would send him to the Training School,” says Akinbi. In any case, he adds, 16 is just too young for the Adult Correctional Institutions.
Confused? No more than everyone else — psychiatrists, teachers, Supreme Court justices — who wrestles with the question of when someone is an adult.
The issue has become critical this year in Rhode Island, because of two cost-saving moves by Republican Governor Donald L. Carcieri to change the way the state provides services to older teenagers.
One proposal was to stop delivering services to young people 18 to 21 who have been in state care after being taken from their families for abuse and similar reasons.
The other idea was raising the age at which juvenile criminal offenders are eligible for Family Court and the state Training School, sending 17-year-olds to adult courts and the ACI.
The Democratic General Assembly balked at cutting off 18-to-21-year-olds from continued care by the Department of Children, Youth and Families. But it did adopt the governor’s proposal to treat 17-year-olds as adult criminals.
The two issues underlie a larger debate about how children and teenagers are cared for in Rhode Island, which has one of the country’s highest rates of childhood poverty, but also nationally recognized programs that have made big improvements in their lives, including the RIte Care health insurance program for lower income families.
When it comes to teenagers, Rhode Island can seem ambivalent — impatient and restrictive one moment, but caring and innovative the next.
This shows up in the arbitrary age limits that sometimes protect young people from their own worst instincts, but at other times seem to fast-forward them into adulthood, as if doing so eliminates wider responsibility for expensive, often exasperating support and nurture.
Contradictions abound.
An 18-year-old can join the Army, but can’t buy a handgun until 21. An 18-year-old can vote, but not drink until 21. Girls can get married at 16 (with a note from their mothers and fathers); boys under 18 have to get permission from their parents and a Family Court judge.
Teenagers can drive at 16, but must navigate speed bumps built into the licensing process until they reach 18. You can’t run for the U.S. House of Representatives until age 25, the Senate until 30, and president until 35.

 So when are we grown up, really?

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  Topics: News Features , Health and Fitness , Mental Health , Don Carcieri ,  More more >
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