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Sentencing Children As Adults
An Article By Terence T. Gorski (03-11-01)

Should children be tried in adult courts and sentenced to adult prisons?  Gorski doesn't believe that they should.  This article explains why.

Should children and adolescents who have not reached legal age be sentenced as adults when they commit serious crimes such as murder.  It is my position that they should not.  Hereís why.

According to Amnesty International, a human rights watch dog organization, the United States is the only western democracy that sends youthful offenders to adult court and sentences them to adult prisons.  According to amnesty international the imprisonment of youthful offenders in adult prisons violates United States international treaty obligations prohibiting cruel and inhumane treatment of children and adolescents. 

Is this an unwarranted or extreme position to take?  I donít believe that it is.  Most youthful offenders will be physically and/or sexually assaulted within seventy-two hours of admission to adult correctional facilities.  Such abuse will continue to occur on a regular basis for the duration of their incarceration.  The effects of this abuse are horrific and include suicides, suicide attempts, severe personality damage, and the development of severe and permanent psychiatric symptoms.  These effects make youthful offenders sentenced as adults more dangerous, not less.  Our willing to do this to our children sends a strong message that the level of moral development of elected officials, judges, prosecutors and the general public is rapidly and dangerously declining.

We need to ask ourselves an important question:

Are we the kind of people who are capable of inflicting cruel and inhumane punishment upon our children and adolescents? 

As a nation, we answered that question decades ago with an emphatic no.  At that time we recognized that most kids deserve a second chance and can turn their lives around with proper no-nonsense treatment in rehabilitation oriented juvenile correction centers.  We backed up our answer up by developing a Juvenile Justice System that protects kids from cruel and inhumane punishment while providing rehabilitation, and teaching the skills necessary to become a productive member of society. 

We did all this because itís the right thing to do.  We did it because to do less would have been beneath us as one of the most moral nations in the civilized world.

We built our Juvenile Justice System around three critical principles:  

1.         It is wrong to hold children and adolescents who have not reached legal age to adult standards.  They are developmentally immature and often unclear about the nature of right and wrong and without proper adult supervision can have problems with judgment and impulse control causing them to act out impulsively without forethought;  

2.         With appropriate treatment most children who commit crimes, even the most violent crimes, can be rehabilitated and become responsible adults; and 

3.         A moral society feels obligated to give kids a second chance whenever possible by having a Juvenile Justice System designed to help kids change rather than punish them for past offenses.

Our Juvenile justice system is based upon the recognition that moral societies value their children and seek to help rather than hurt, treat rather than punish, and rehabilitate rather than destroy. 

Not all youthful offenders can be rehabilitated.  Some pose a real and present danger and need to be segregated from society.  The period of confinement, however, should be designed to give youthful offenders a chance to learn, grow, and change.  If long-term protective segregation is required, it should be done in adolescent correctional facilities which protect the children from harm. 

It is important to remember that punishment does not work.  The threat of punishment is an ineffective deterrent to crime, especially for children and adolescents.  Punishment is a failed a strategy for changing behavior, teaching new skills, or developing new and more positive attitudes and beliefs.  The only justification for inflicting harsh punishment is to deliver vengeance in accord with the old testament standard of an eye-for-an-eye. 

Loved ones of victims may feel justified in crying out for vengeance.  The result is tragic.  Vengeance does not relieve the grief and loss.  It also instills a sense of inner conflict and guilt.  On a deep level most human beings intuitively know that vengeance breeds more vengeance and violence breeds more violence.  When people mature to higher levels of moral development they recognize the obligation to break the cycle of vengeance and retribution. 

Look at the pictures of the two children below.  Both are victims.  One is a victim of lethal violence inflicted by a twelve year old playmate.  The other is a victim of a legal system that is rapidly declining into old testament morality or retribution.

Lionel Tate, 14, cried Friday after being sentenced for the 1999 beating death of Tiffany Eunick, 6. The judge said the act was "cold, callous and indescribably cruel."

Tiffany Eunick, young girl beaten to death by 14 year old Lionel Tate.


Tiffany Eunick, age 6, was the victim of violence perpetrated by an unsupervised twelve year old, Lionel Tate.  Lionel thought he was playing when he emulated the moves and tactics of the professional wrestlers who were his heroes and role models.  He watched professional wrestling week after week.  He witnessed hundreds if not thousands of savagely brutal acts perpetrated by professionally wrestlers assuming the personaís of theatrical psychopaths.  He watched as they savagely body slammed, knee-dropped, and kicked each other. 

In his immaturity, he couldnít see that it was all a show.  He had inadequate adult supervision.  There was no one to point out the dangerousness and immorality of the violent displays he was witnessing.  There was no adult present to impress upon his immature mind the dangerous of using such savage tactics on others.

Lionel, an immature 12 year old, assumed he could do to other kids what these heroic wrestlers did to each other.  He assumed the outcome would be the same Ė no one would really get hurt.  Tragically, the showmanship of professional wrestlers can become lethal when inflicted by one child upon another.  Thinking he was playing, Lionel body-slammed, head kicked, and knee dropped Tiffany.  It was over quickly.  Lionel was shocked and traumatized to see that he killed Tiffany. 

Is Lionel a hopeless psychopath who should be locked away for the rest of his life?  He doesnít appear to be.  Will throwing away Lionelís life bring back Tiffany or sooth the grief of her parents and friends?  Probably not.  Will Lionel be helped to become a better person as a result of his life-long imprisonment?  Definitely not.  He will be physically and sexually abused and psychiatrically damaged in deep and profound ways by his prison experiences.  There is a strong possibility he will attempt suicide to try and escape the torturous consequences of his imprisonment.

So why are we as a nation allowing this to happen?  Part of the reason is because our adolescent treatment professionals, the experts trained and educated to know better, are standing silently on the sidelines.  The clinical professionals who are obligated to advocate for our youth and to protect our juvenile justice system from destruction have failed to act decisively and effectively.  As a result the safety of all children is progressively going at risk.

How many children need to be tried, convicted, and imprisoned in adult facilities before it becomes wrong?  How many children must be destroyed by a criminal justice system going out of control before we do something?

Mr. Gorski Is Available To Speak Or Consult
On The Issue Of Sentencing Children As Adults
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