Monday, March 2, 2009

Scotland up, United States down

Nations differ on prosecution of pint-sized lawbreakers

If you took my blog quiz of February 3, you will recall that only eight people in the entire world are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed at age 13, and that all eight are in the Prison Nation (aka the United States).

February was a big month for juvenile crime news. We had the little 4-year-old who shot his babysitter, a plea deal in the case of the Arizona 9-year-old who shot his father and another man to death, and -- most recently -- the 11-year-old Pennsylvania boy who will be prosecuted as an adult in the shooting death of a pregnant woman.

11-year-old Jordan Brown

In Pennsylvania, where kids as young as 10 can be tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison, Jordan Brown was initially locked in an 8-by-10 cell in an adult jail. Swimming in oversized clothes cuffed up around his wrists and ankles, he could not take showers or have visitors because that would have required him mingling with adult prisoners. A judge ordered him moved to a juvenile facility, but he still faces trial as an adult.

Having just conducted two back-to-back competency evaluations of 11-year-olds here in rainy California, I can tell you one thing for certain: They are NOT miniature adults. And except when they commit crimes, no one pretends that they are. After all, they may not drive, vote, buy alcohol, smoke cigarettes, sign contracts, or even decide to skip a day of school.

Not only do 11-year-olds just not get it but, as I have blogged about previously, transferring juveniles to adult courts actually increases rather than reduces recidivism!

While U.S. states engage in a dubious competition over who can try more young children as adults, more civilized Europeans are going in the opposite direction.

In most of Europe, children under 10 cannot even be prosecuted as criminals, much less tried and sentenced as adults. The age of criminal responsibility is as high as 15 in Scandinavian countries. And a British think tank recently recommended raising the age of criminal prosecution even more, to 16 or 18.

Just this week, Scotland announced plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 8 to 12 to bring it more in line with other European countries.

"There is no good reason for Scotland to continue to have the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe," said Scotland’s Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill. "Most importantly, the evidence shows that prosecution at an early age increases the chance of reoffending – so this change is about preventing crime."

Public policy based on data instead of hysteria? Now, that's positively un-American!

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