A report released this week by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin examines for the first time the plight of pre-adolescent children – including some as young as 7 – in the adult criminal justice system in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. As noted in the report, “From Time-Out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System,” almost 80 children aged 13 and younger are judicially transferred to adult court every year. Michele Deitch (pictured), an adjunct professor at the LBJ School and the UT School of Law and the report’s lead author, says that in Texas, a juvenile 14 or older who is charged with a capital offense and certain felonies can be transferred to the adult system. But Deitch says scientific evidence and research indicate that age 14 is too young to be in the adult system. Students supervised by Deitch in an LBJ School class conducted the study in the fall of 2007 and the spring of 2008. Deitch says she considers the single most startling fact found in the study to be that the majority of children whom courts have transferred to the adult system are not charged with crimes against persons. Their crimes are more likely to be offenses against property or drug-related charges, she says. This is particularly troubling in Texas, Deitch says, because if a juvenile is certified for prosecution as an adult and is subsequently charged with committing another felony, the prosecution can elect to try that juvenile as an adult. However, Deitch says, the report holds up Texas as a model for the state’s determinate sentencing law, which allows a court to assess a juvenile up to a 40-year sentence with the provision that the juvenile will serve the first part of that sentence in a Texas Youth Commission facility. The court later evaluates the progress the juvenile makes in TYC programs to determine whether to send him to an adult prison and the length of the sentence he must serve there. The report is critical of the practice of holding juveniles in adult jails when they are awaiting trial and in adult prisons once they are convicted. According to the report, on a single day in 2008, 7,703 children under age 18 were held in adult local jails and 3,650 in adult state prisons. Authors of the report recommend that the U.S. Congress close a loophole in the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that exempts juveniles certified for prosecution as adults from a prohibition against detaining them in adult facilities.
-- Mary Alice Robbins