- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

If a 12-year-old told you he was old enough to be treated as a grownup in every respect, you'd probably roll your eyes or laugh out loud. We all know that people that age are still children, which is why we don't let them drive, vote, buy alcohol, enlist in the Army, or date XFL cheerleaders. In fact, about the only way a 12-year-old can hope to warrant adult treatment is to go out and kill someone.

It certainly worked for Lionel Tate, the Florida boy recently convicted of first-degree murder in adult court for beating to death a 6-year-old playmate. Now 14, he got a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole, or just what a hardened, gray-haired sociopath might have gotten. With his youth and life expectancy, Lionel has only one thing to look forward to: making the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest sentence ever served behind bars.

This case is one more item of evidence suggesting that when it comes to juvenile offenders, we don't have the slightest idea what we're doing. Another is the recent decision of a Connecticut judge that 40-year-old Michael Skakel, charged with murdering a teenage girl in 1975, will also be tried as an adult and, if convicted, sent to an adult prison — even though at the time the crime was committed, he would have been treated like the juvenile he was.

The juvenile justice system is supposed to concentrate on reforming youthful offenders, not letting them rot behind bars — a sensible approach, since they are unformed and far more susceptible to change than veteran adult criminals. Rehabilitation also recognizes the obvious: Children are less blameworthy than adults because, through no fault of their own, they lack the maturity and self-control that we expect of their elders. Giving up on a 14-year-old may sound like tough-minded realism, but it's really irresponsible defeatism.

Still, the public mood in recent years has shifted toward punishment, punishment and more punishment. Adolescent criminals are far more likely today to be tried in adult court and incarcerated in adult prisons, where they can expect no help in reforming their lives. That change has had the support of some important public officials, including the guy now in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice, John Ashcroft.

It's one thing to say that adult criminals have made their choices and should have to live with them. In the case of children, though, our usual practice is to say that they cannot be allowed to make irrevocable choices and must be protected from their own immature judgment. A kid who signs a contract can't be held responsible for that choice as an adult would be. But a kid who kills someone can be and, these days, will be.

Tate's lawyer and his mother turned down a plea bargain that would have offered a sane way of dealing with his crime — three years in juvenile detention and another 10 years of probation. After that, the prosecutor, Ken Padowitz, decided to try him on the most serious charge, first-degree murder, knowing it would mean a life sentence. It now turns out, according to the Miami Herald, that he and Tate's lawyer had an agreement that in the event of conviction, they would both go to the governor to request what Padowitz calls “a more reasonable and appropriate sentence.”

Gov. Jeb Bush has expressed doubts about treating 12-year-old offenders as adults, which suggests that he'll commute the sentence. But what kind of way is this to handle a juvenile felon — letting the criminal justice system impose a radically excessive punishment and then hoping the governor will undo the mistake?

The Skakel case presented a more complicated dilemma, since the defendant has reached middle age. But the same punitive impulse prevailed. If he had been arrested in 1975, Skakel almost certainly would have been tried as a juvenile. The goal of the juvenile justice system in that ancient era, Yale Law School senior research associate David Rosen told The New York Times last year, “was to assist youngsters that ran afoul of the law, even in heinous ways. It was taking and making them law-abiding adults.”

If that were the goal today, there would be no point in prosecuting Skakel, who has evidently led a trouble-free life since 1975. It's reasonable to incarcerate a juvenile killer in order to turn him into a law-abiding citizen. But what sense does it make to imprison someone who has spent the last quarter of a century doing the same thing on his own? Nor is a long prison term necessary to protect society, since he has shown that he no longer poses a threat.

Some punishment of Michael Skakel, if he's guilty, is in order — just as some punishment of Lionel Tate is in order. But destroying their lives for the sake of vengeance merely compounds one senseless act of destruction with another.

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