16-25 Segment 1: Juveniles Sent To Adult Prison

young man in handcuffs

 

Synopsis: There are millions of people incarcerated in American prisons – many of them juveniles sentenced to long terms alongside adults. Should children be tried as adults and sent to adult prisons? Are they mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions? Or should they be treated differently than adults who commit serious offenses? Our guests discuss why we have so many people incarcerated and how juveniles – even those who commit murder – should be given another chance.

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Guests:

  • Peter K. Enns, Associate Professor, Dept. of Government at Cornell University, Executive Director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, and author of the book, Incarceration Nation: How the United States became the most punitive democracy in the world
  • Jean Trounstine, Professor at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts, and author of the book, Boy With a Knife: A story of murder, remorse and a prisoner’s fight for justice

Links for more info:

Juveniles Sent To Adult Prison

Gary Price: The statistics are staggering: according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice, on any given day in 2013, more than 54-thousand children under 17 are were held in juvenile detention centers in this nation. In 2014, 42-hundred kids under 18 were housed in adult jails, and just over one thousand inmates 17 or younger were in custody in state prison institutions. The offenses that put them there ranged from murder to assault to property crimes; drug possession, delinquency or violation of probation or parole. Sentences varied by state, jurisdiction and offense but even a short time spent in a facility can have negative long-term effects on a young person’s life. Many of the adults in prison serving long sentences now were under 18 when they committed their crimes. Why do we have so many people in prison? Peter K. Enns says that the incarceration rate for almost all offenses began to climb back in the 1970s when the “tough on crime” movement took hold. Enns is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University and Executive Director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. He’s also author of the book, Incarceration Nation: How the United States became the most punitive democracy in the world…

Peter K. Enns: If we look back at the data, back in the 1950s the U.S. incarceration rate wasn’t especially distinct. In fact, it was in between the incarceration rate of Finland and Denmark. So this has been a decades-long process to get to this “title” of the world’s incarceration leader and started, really, in the 70s, 80s through the 90s. And it was mostly due to political changes, policy changes in terms of changing mandatory sentencing so crimes that previously didn’t carry a prison sentence having a mandatory sentence; extending the length of sentences; rules like three-strikes laws where a third convicted felony can lead to, for example in California, a 25 year to life sentence. These changes in how we punish certain crimes are the main factor in the rise of mass incarceration.

Price: Enns says that now there are about 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S., and it’s not just the fault of the politicians. He says that the public – with the help of the media – took a tougher line on law and order during the last part of the 20th century…

Enns: As the crime rate was going up in the 60s and 70s, and media was covering this – media tends to cover crime in a certain way: tends to over-report violent crime, focus more on violent crime, tends to focus on the specific nature of the crime as opposed to talking about the broad picture and ways to, maybe, address the roots of crime or social issues. The media reporting on rising crime rates in a very specific way was a major factor in why the public became so punitive in the first place.

Price: Enns says that, ironically, the big-headline crimes aren’t the ones that put the majority of people in prison…

Enns: So a lot of the increase in the incarceration rate was changes in how we prosecute low-level drug offenders like possession of small amounts of illegal drugs or those caught buying drugs. And so, of course, violent crime is part of the story and matters for the incarceration rate but it’s not nearly the whole story.

Price: Jean Trounstine is a professor at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts. She found out how the “get tough on crime” movement and media attention could affect a case against a juvenile. Trounstine is the author of the book, Boy With a Knife: A story of murder, remorse and a prisoner’s fight for justice. She started a correspondence with Karter Kane Reed, a young white man from the poor side of town in New Bedford, Massachusetts whose father was incarcerated on drug charges.  Karter was convicted of second-degree murder in for the 1993 stabbing of a classmate when he was 16, and was serving a life sentence in adult prison…

Jean Trounstine: My sense from all of the things, and I read a lot of different newspapers, is a portrait of boys who didn’t care, boys who were intentionally out to kill. Words like “monster,” “Killer Karter,” they called him “stone cold,” they said the boys laughed joyfully after the murder, high-fived, things like that. There were a lot of different people who saw a lot of different things and they were reported, even though they were hearsay, they were reported in the media and created a picture in people’s minds. That, I think, happens a lot, but I think it happens in a way that does not give the person a chance to exist on their own merits. You get this image before the trial even occurs.

Price: Trounstine says that the murder occurred when a classmate made an obscene remark about Karter’s friend Nigel’s mother. Karter and Nigel along with another friend, Gator, went looking for the name-caller in a classroom at school. He wasn’t there, but a friend of his, Jason Robinson, was…

Trounstine: Karter’s standing at the doorway. He is a small guy. He’s never stood up for himself.  He wants to prove himself. He believed in loyalty above all else, and as Jason goes by he takes his knife out of his pocket, which was always something he carried to school – open in his pocket, never used it – and he stabs him, and had no connection in my mind that he’d kill him. He wanted to harm him; he thought he’d be a hero for harming, him but it never occurred to him in his 16-year-old brain that you stab someone and you kill him.

Price: Trounstine doesn’t excuse Karter for what he did – the killing of a young boy is always a tragedy for the family and the community – and she says that Karter should be held accountable for it. What she takes exception to is that Karter was expected to pay the adult price of life in prison for actions he took as a child. Trounstine says that kids aren’t adults – their brains don’t completely mature until their early- to mid-twenties. Before maturity, young peoples’ temperaments and decision-making skills can be woefully underdeveloped…

Trounstine: Impulsivity, more impulsivity with kids, less ability to see in the future – meaning to know the consequences of one’s actions. Just imagine going into a school in the middle of the day, going into a classroom to have a fight! Who is thinking like that? You have to not be aware of the consequences of your actions. So that’s a perfect example. And then, third I would say, sort of an increased sense of emotionality and drama with the importance of things, the sort of over-emphasis on things is also sort of a feature of childhood. And, finally, peer pressure. The being influenced by other kids.

Price: She believes that kids can change as well. In fact, through the 100 letters that she and Karter exchanged, she learned that he did change – quite a bit…

Trounstine: He was always aware that he wanted to make amends to the Robinson family – he couldn’t ever talk to them – but he felt grief and he wanted to understand why he’d done what he’d done so he took programs, as many as he could get into. They ranged from different kinds of emotional programs to barbering to public speaking. You know, he’d enroll in anything that he thought might benefit him in some way. He wasn’t allowed to be in certain educational programs because of the “nature of his crime,” which was really an awful thing at the time.

Price: Trounstine says life for a teenager in an adult prison can be brutal with sexual assault, intimidation and time in solitary – for their own protection – real possibilities. Trounstine says that Karter turned his life around in prison, becoming an intelligent, well-read and industrious young man, despite the violence and intimidation of adult-prison life. When he came up for parole after 15 years behind bars, the board decided he could be released. However in “pre-release” something happened that changed his life yet again…

Trounstine: Karter had a lot of aches and pains and he wanted to get glucosamine chondroitin, which is an over-the-counter supplement – I take it for arthritis. He asked someone to get him some from the commissary; there wasn’t any in the prison where he was at. And he was really close to getting out, like under four months or something he would have…at six months he would have been out. They got him this stuff and he said, “By the way, get me six extra pairs of underpants,” because they didn’t have clean underpants or new underpants, and he got it. And then his locker was raided and they immediately threw him back into a “secure facility.”

Price: The parole board decided that this small infraction was enough to rescind his parole and Karter was sent back to prison. Karter spent his time learning the law and finding a pro bono attorney to secure his parole. He sued the parole board and finally got out, but Trounstine says that Karter shouldn’t have had to serve his sentence or plead for his parole the way an adult would. He should have been tried and able to serve his sentence in a juvenile facility…

Trounstine: I think the juvenile system is totally able to handle this. People think the juvenile system is “piece of cake,” some kind of flutter game or something. What makes prison prison is you’re isolated from people that you love. That’s what makes prison prison – loneliness. I would change the length of time we have kids be behind bars. I would give them much more programming. I would do what Germany does: I would train my people to work with them to be counselors; they have to take training for two years. Our correction officers are trained for, maybe, eight weeks. I’d have them be trained in psychology and health. I’d help them develop into the kind of person I want my own child to be.

Price: In our next segment, we’ll hear how communities, detention facilities and educators can institute changes to prevent juveniles from ending up in the vicious cycle of the justice system. We’ll also talk to an educator about the pressure draconian school rules put on the teachers who have to enforce them. To read the story of a juvenile sentenced as an adult for murder and his journey through the justice system, read Jean Trounstine’s book, Boy with a Knife and visit her site at JeanTrounstine.com. For information on Peter K. Enns and is book, Incarceration Nation, visit his site at PeterEnns.org. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

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