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October 30, 2007

Rocky Rhode Island consequences in moving juve crime age line

A helpful reader alerted me to this very interesting article from the New York Times that highlights how tough on crime efforts to save a few bucks often can backfire and produce many unexpected consequences.  Here are snippets from an article that should be read in full:

It was conceived as a way to save money in the face of a $450 million deficit in Rhode Island’s current budget: making 17-year-olds adults in the eyes of the law, shifting their cases to criminal from juvenile court and putting offenders in the state prison rather than the youth correctional center.  The measure, which took effect July 1 and was expected to save $3.6 million a year, has ignited a firestorm, with children’s groups, the state public defender and others calling it bad policy that in any event is not a money-saver.

“It’s a gross failure of responsibility,” said the state’s attorney general, Patrick C. Lynch. “It’s not saving money. It’s creating enormous questions and problems in the system, never mind ruining lives” of young offenders who are left with criminal records.  Responding to the concerns, the legislature plans to take up a measure today that would essentially repeal the law....

The proposal to treat 17-year-olds as adults for criminal-justice purposes was the subject of a legislative hearing in March, where Attorney General Lynch, a Democrat whose office is elective, and others came out strongly against it.  Opponents took little action after that, as many thought it would be killed in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. But it survived, and before long it became apparent that the new law could well cost money rather than save it. 

The State Department of Children, Youth and Families, which had proposed the idea, had assumed that 17-year-olds would be held among the general prison population, where incarceration costs $39,000 an inmate per year, 60 percent less than the $98,000 in the juvenile-offender system.  But A. T. Wall II, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, decided that for the sake of the young inmates’ protection, they would be held in maximum security, where the annual per-inmate cost is $104,000....

Beyond the fiscal issue are those involving public-records law, privacy and even bail.  Seventeen-year-olds are not legally authorized to sign a contract in Rhode Island, and as a result cannot sign a bail form or a plea agreement without a parent present. “How do you plea a kid, or how do you post bail, when you’re not old enough to contract?” said John J. Hardiman, the state’s public defender. The new law also now makes the records of 17-year-olds public, unlike all juvenile records in the state, which are sealed.

Attorney General Lynch believes the law unnecessary because he could previously elevate juvenile cases to the adult level if the suspect had committed prior offenses or the crime was particularly violent. He said he believed the measure was destroying the lives of young nonviolent offenders, as drug convictions make it harder to find jobs and housing and cause students to be ineligible for federal aid. “This isn’t about the murderers, rapists, robbers — they could all be waived,” Mr. Lynch said. “This is about if there’s one joint in a car with four kids and it’s not lit. Those charges aren’t what they used to be. The world has changed for 17-year-olds in Rhode Island.”

Ten other states try people under 18 as adults, said Mr. Griffin, the juvenile justice researcher. But in Illinois and Wisconsin, there is a push to raise it back, he said.  And Connecticut, which currently tries 16-year-olds as adults, is already set to raise the age to 18 as of 2010. In Rhode Island, Mr. Hardiman, the public defender, said judges’ concerns about the new law had caused many cases to be resolved before they even reach court. “They’re exercising discretion,” Mr. Hardiman said of the judges, “and I applaud them in trying to protect young people when the current sanctions are for someone much more mature than a 17-year-old kid.”

October 30, 2007 at 02:22 PM | Permalink

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