ACLU Urges Caution on Juvenile Justice

March 10, 1999 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Wednesday, March 10, 1999

WASHINGTON — As members of the House of Representatives held hearings today on reforming our nation’s juvenile justice system, the American Civil Liberties Union called on Congress not to let its zeal to appear tough on crime lead to slapdash “solutions” destined to fail.

“With juvenile crime declining for the fourth year in a row, now is not the time for radical changes that may eventually create more problems than they fix,” said Rachel King, Legislative Counsel for the ACLU.

Among the topics addressed at the hearings before a Judiciary Committee panel was expanding prosecutors’ power to move juveniles into the adult court system without judicial review, which is required under current law. The ACLU and other groups sharply criticize this proposed change, charging that prosecuting youths as adults increases the likelihood that they will commit another crime after their release.

As an example of the dangers of prosecutorial discretion, the ACLU pointed to the case of a Florida prosecutor who charged as an adult a mentally disabled 15-year-old who stole $2 for food. As a result the boy, Anthony Laster, was charged with strong-arm robbery, which is punishable by life in prison, and extortion, punishable by 30 years in prison.

This year’s debate on juvenile justice began earlier in the session with the introduction of legislation (S 254) by Senators Orrin Hatch, R-UT, Jeff Sessions, R-AL, and Mike DeWine, R-OH.

An ACLU review of the Sessions legislation has uncovered some troubling provisions:

  • It would reverse a century long practice of attempting to rehabilitate youthful offenders. Particularly troubling is a provision that would open juvenile court records, making them accessible to schools and future employers, effectively preventing any efforts at reform.
  • It urges the states to prosecute children as young as 10-years-old as adults.
  • It would remove the requirement that states receiving federal funds address disproportionate rates of minority confinement in detention facilities.
  • It would lift important protections that keep juveniles from having contact with adult offenders. Current law requires complete “sight and sound separation.” The changes proposed would weaken that requirement by allowing juveniles to come into “incidental contact” with adults. The legislation would also provide funding to the states to allow them to build “co-located facilities” that would house children in adult jails.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.